Women’s college basketball 2023-24: The players and coaches we’re excited to see
From Angel Reese of LSU to USC guard JuJu Watkins, women’s hoops won’t be short of storylines this season
The 2023-24 women’s college basketball season stands to offer fans a little bit of everything: Headlining talents, big-name programs vying for position at the top of the pack, new and exciting challengers entering the elite arena and, above all else, some incredible basketball.
To prepare for the season ahead, we’ve assembled a preseason list of what we’re looking forward to. From players, coaches and programs to watch, to trends we’re hoping to see continue, this is (just some) of what we have our eye on for the upcoming college basketball season.
It should be a memorable one.
Black coaches making an impact
A look at the AP Top 25 shows a trend of Black coaches and their programs continuing to excel.
Four teams led by Black coaches are among the top 12 ranked preseason teams. At No. 6 is South Carolina, led by Dawn Staley. At No. 8 is Virginia Tech, led by Kenny Brooks. At No. 10 is Notre Dame, led by Niele Ivey and at No. 12 is Ole Miss, led by Yolett McPhee-McCuin. All four appeared in last year’s Elite Eight.
The summer’s coaching hiring cycle was a strong one for Black coaches. After leading past programs to strong finishes in 2022-23, several coaches find themselves leading new teams in 2023-24. Alex Simmons was hired at Memphis after making history at Gardner-Webb, finishing with the best season in Big South Conference history (18-0 in conference play). Billi Chambers will take the reins at Xavier after 10 seasons at Iona. Erin Batth became the first Black female head coach in Providence College history.
For the first time in 20 years, we’ll see Black coaches on the sideline of the Big 12. Though no conference team has formally hired a Black coach since 1998, conference realignment led to the inheritance of three programs led by Black coaches. Houston is led by Ronald Hughey. The University of Central Florida is led by Sytia Messer. In her first season coaching at her alma mater, Katrina Merriweather will lead Cincinnati in her Power 5 coaching debut.
The battle for Los Angeles
UCLA and USC will enter the season with big expectations and the hype around both programs will make for some can’t miss intercity matchups between the two schools.
The addition of Stanford center Lauren Betts to the UCLA roster catapulted the potential of an already talented team. Pair Betts with a budding star in sophomore guard Kiki Rice and WNBA-bound grad student guard Charisma Osborne and the Bruins could have one of the most lethal trios in college basketball. After not being ranked last preseason, UCLA enters 2023-24 ranked No. 6 in the AP Top 25.
The Trojans are ahead of schedule in their steps toward being a consistent contender after last year’s impressive performance. USC has one of the best talents in the Pac-12 and premier shot blockers in the country in junior forward Rayah Marshall, the most highly touted freshman in the country in JuJu Watkins and an underrated collective of Ivy League grad transfers who will bring a wealth of experience to the Trojans bench.
UCLA and USC first face off Dec. 30 in Westwood, California, with the second game at USC on Jan. 14.
LSU grabs every rebound
With Aneesah Morrow transferring to LSU in May, a rebounding behemoth has been assembled in the Tigers frontcourt. LSU now has two of the top 5 rebounders in the country from a year ago: Morrow (No. 5) and Angel Reese (No. 1). Last year, Reese and Morrow ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the nation, respectively, in defensive rebounds per game. Both players have such great instincts around the rim and are total ball hawks when a shot goes up. Public service announcement to LSU’s opponents this season: Make those first shot attempts count.
Rickea Jackson is coming for her things
The potential of the 2024 draft class is undoubtedly enormous, with the pool of talent potentially being filled with such players as Caitlin Clark of Iowa, Paige Bueckers of UConn, Cameron Brink of Stanford and Reese. Perhaps not getting enough space in that dialogue is Tennessee’s 6-foot-2 forward Rickea Jackson.
Jackson is a dangerous offensive threat who can beat opponents in different ways – from finishing through contact in transition to one of the sweetest turnaround jumpers in the game. Jackson, who averaged 19.2 points and 6.1 rebounds on 54.8% shooting last year for the Lady Vols, looked great on the floor as she represented the United States in the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup. Selected to the tournament’s All-Star Five, Jackson averaged a team-high 14.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in seven games. Jackson was ready for the pros after last season, and has a real opportunity to further propel her game up draft boards this season and there’s a good chance she’ll deliver.
Season 2 of the Cotie McMahon show
Jackson’s teammate on that AmeriCup team was Ohio State forward Cotie McMahon, who was one of the most exciting players in the country to watch a year ago during her freshman season with the Buckeyes. McMahon, Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2023, is a dynamic and physically imposing presence for Ohio State. There may not be a more dangerous player one-on-one in transition when McMahon has the ball, especially when she’s charging down the middle of the floor.
As we saw plenty of times last year, McMahon either maneuvers around an opponent or moves through one, and will finish either way. Defensively, McMahon ranked second in steals on a team that recorded the fifth most in the country, many of which came via the program’s cornerstone full-court defense. The continued evolution of McMahon’s game is absolutely something we’re excited for this season.
Coaches and programs that could take a step up in Year 2
Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton and the Virginia Cavaliers turned heads at the start of last season when they began the year 12-0, the program’s best start to a season since 1994-95. Virginia’s fortunes reversed when its top performing player, forward Mir McLean, was lost for the season with a knee injury. Virginia went on to struggle in ACC play, ending the year 15-15.
Year 2 shows promise for Agugua-Hamilton, as she returns McLean, and her other two top frontcourt performers, forwards Camryn Taylor and Sam Brunelle. In the backcourt, Charlottesville native Kymora Johnson, the No. 24 recruit in the class of 2023 according to espnW HoopGurlz recruiting rankings, enters as a freshman to watch. There’s also 2022 McDonald’s All-American Paris Clarkc, who transferred from Arizona, and sophomore guard Yonta Vaughn, who could take a leap after showing promise last year as a freshman.
Texas A&M coach Joni Taylor’s first year in College Station was one marked by transition as she began to steer the team into a new era after an incredible run by former coach Gary Blair. The Aggies struggled in SEC play, finishing 2-14 on the year, but were also burdened by injured players all season.
This summer, Taylor assembled one of the best transfer portal groups in the country with players such as former Oregon guard Endyia Rogers, Auburn guard Aicha Coulibaly and Arizona forward Lauren Ware. Combined with Texas A&M’s promising young core of sophomores Janiah Barker and Sydney Bowles, under the tutelage of Taylor the Aggies could make some noise this season.
Four freshmen to watch
JuJu Watkins – USC
The stage is set for Watkins, the No. 1 ranked recruit, to help lead the USC Trojans into a new era. There’s a real buzz with hopes that the hometown kid in Watkins can help return the Trojans to its glory days when they were giants in the sport. Watkins, the 2023 Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year, is the second USC freshman to enter the program with that honor after 1990 winner Lisa Leslie. Watkins will likely be assigned a sizable role in her first year, but by all accounts, she seems more than ready to meet the moment.
Hannah Hidalgo – Notre Dame
Point guard Hannah Hidalgo is an absolute lightning rod on the court. Ivey calls her a program changer whose play reminds her of legendary Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Hidalgo set a McDonald’s All American game scoring record by dropping 26 points.
It’s Hidalgo’s two-way play for the Fighting Irish that makes her a constant threat. She averaged 7.3 steals per game in high school. Hidalgo will have a chance to make an immediate impact as a primary ball handler in the absence of guard Olivia Miles. When Miles and Hidalgo get to take the court together? Watch out.
MiLaysia Fulwiley – South Carolina
It’s a big deal when, before you even play your first official game at the collegiate level, Coach Staley has labeled you as a generational player. That’s the expectation that has been laid forth for freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley.
It only takes a few minutes of watching Fulwiley to see her incredible potential. Fulwiley is one of those talents you don’t want to take your eyes off of. She can (and will) pull up from anywhere and is guaranteed to have one of the best layup packages in college basketball.
Mikaylah Williams – LSU
There’s been so much talk about the big names, Hailey Van Lith and Morrow, that LSU grabbed in the transfer portal. While the fanfare is justified, it sometimes feels like Mikaylah Williams, the No. 2 ranked player in espnW Rankings’ Class of 2023, has somehow flown under the radar.
Williams is an extremely smooth player who can play at different speeds on the floor. She has a great awareness and understanding of how to best use and maximize her strong 6-foot-1 frame against the opposition.
Mid-major player to watch
Quinesha Lockett – Toledo
Many college basketball fans became familiar with guard Quinesha Lockett after watching her lead the Toledo Rockets to an upset win over Iowa State in last year’s NCAA tournament, Toledo’s first tournament win in 27 years. Last season’s MAC Player of the Year, Lockett finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists on 55% shooting in the historic win over the Cyclones.
Lockett’s game is defined by her speed. She’s a fast player who loves to get to the rim, is adept at navigating pick-and-roll offense and is exceptional at getting downhill. Over her last three seasons with Toledo, Lockett has averaged 18.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals. Look out for another big year from the fifth-year guard, who has her sights set on a Sweet 16 berth in her final college season.
HBCUs to watch
A battle in the Southwestern Athletic Conference?
Coach Tomekia Reed’s Jackson State squad, which has won the last four Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season titles, enter the season as the preseason favorites – and rightfully so. The team is led by Ti’lan Boler, the SWAC Preseason Player of the Year and Angel Jackson, the conference Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. After missing out on a three-peat as SWAC champions due to a game-winning buzzer-beater by Southern in March, the Tigers will have some extra motivation to reclaim their spot at the top of the conference.
However, there could be a team ready to spoil that run: the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Led by coach Dawn Thornton, the Lions return all their top producers from a team that reached the SWAC championship final a year ago.
In the backcourt, the team is led by preseason All-SWAC first-team selection Coriah Beck with a strong frontcourt defensive presence in preseason All-SWAC second team selection Maori Davenport. Two transfers could become the X factor for the Lions, who brought in guard Zaay Green from Texas A&M and forward Starr Jacobs, a two-time conference player of the year from the University of Texas Arlington. Watch out for AUPB.
Norfolk State ready to run it back
After winning its second consecutive MEAC regular-season title and the second MEAC tournament title in program history, Norfolk State is looking to repeat. The Spartans will have major holes to fill with the loss of two conference first-team selections in Camille Downs, who led the team in scoring and was last year’s MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and Deja Francis, who led the team in assists a season ago.
Norfolk does return junior forward Kierra Wheeler, selected to the preseason All-MEAC first team, and junior guard Niya Fields, selected to the preseason All-MEAC second team. Larry Vickers, 2022-23 MEAC Coach of the Year, made a huge splash in the transfer portal when he brought in guard Diamond Johnson from NC State. Johnson should quickly establish herself as a top player in the conference.