2022-23 Offseason check-in with the Pac-12, Part 3: USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State
Part three in a three-part series
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!
Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?
The time is getting shorter every day. It’s now just two months until women’s college basketball returns for the regular season. What’s been going on in the Pac-12 since April?
We took a look at Arizona, Arizona State, California, and Colorado in Part 1 of this series. Part 2 was a check-in with Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA. Time to wind things up with a peek at USC, Utah, Washington, and Washington State.
The biggest news of the offseason for USC was one of off-court tragedy. The day after playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, Aaliyah Gayles was shot at a house party in Las Vegas. Gayles suffered 10 bullet wounds to her arms and legs. She was one of four people to be shot, reportedly after a disagreement at the party. No suspects were identified.
“What a just unimaginable event to have happened,” USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I still can't wrap my mind around it. But given the horrific nature of it, she has just proven over and over again that she's superhuman, that she's amazing. I saw her a couple of days after the shooting, and as devastating as it was to see her in a hospital like that, I was uplifted immediately by the fact that her mind wasn't affected, her heart wasn't affected, and her spirit wasn’t affected. And that young woman has a fighting chance with those things. It’s hard to count her out.”
Gayles was the eighth-ranked player in the class of 2022 according to ESPN. She was also the only member of Gottlieb’s freshman class.
Gayles has joined the Women of Troy in Los Angeles, but her road back to full health will be a considerable one. Gottlieb says she’s ahead of schedule.
“She's thriving,” Gottlieb said. “She's a college student here. She's walking. She's getting around. So given a terrible situation, I think she's proven that she's someone you want in your life and in your program, and we're really excited to have her here.”
Gayles is working on rehab and spending time with the team.
“The same way an injured player [would be],” Gottlieb said. “She does her physical therapy. She does treatment. She's around the team like any other student-athlete would be.”
As for the rest of the team, USC will welcome in seven transfers to go with the six players who remained after last season. The Women of Troy must replace the production of players like former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Alissa Pili and last year’s leading scorer Jordyn Jenkins.
With so many new players and major departures, it wasn’t a normal offseason where the coaches and returners welcome in a handful of new players to an established system. For Gottlieb, it’s not a matter of integrating transfers into an existing team. It’s time to start from scratch.
“I think it's essentially starting over with a new team,” she said. “And the transfer portal, I think, is here to stay. And the mentality is, coaches need to kind of use it in a way that suits their program and for us, in a spot where we're trying to really change a lot of things, it was a way for us to maybe get the right people here more quickly.”
Except for Stanford, that’s been the story of every program in the Pac-12 and most of the country over the past few years. With her background in the NBA, Gottlieb has experience with the concept of free agency. She thinks there are some similarities she can draw on, although the transfer portal has its own peculiarities.
“I think a natural comparison is free agency,” Gottlieb said. “Players can kind of go where they want to, but in reality even NBA players you're not usually getting seven new players on the team in an offseason. So I think there's some comparison that makes sense in a sense of autonomy for players to decide where they want to be, what’s best for them and their happiness, and not just blindly saying I'm automatically going to be here for four or five years. And then it's still very uniquely a collegiate landscape in terms of what female basketball players want is relationship based and they're looking, I think, to be fulfilled and happy.”
That means coaching today has different requirements, though.
“It's a different skill set,” Gottlieb said. “How quickly can you get a bunch of new players or new players and a mix of players that have been here playing together? Historically teams have done well that have veterans and played together for a while, so now you might have older players but they don't know your terminology or you might have players that have only been here a year or two trying to make an impact. So, it challenges a different skill set in some ways for coaches.”
One of the players who didn’t require Gottlieb to use that skill set is Rayah Marshall. The sophomore will be trying to build on a strong freshman season when she averaged 11.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game on her way to being selected for the All-Freshman and honorable mention All-Defensive teams. As one of the major contributors who returned to the team, her development will be key. Fortunately for the Women of Troy, Gottlieb is encouraged by what she sees from her young forward.
“She's been terrific,” Gottlieb said. “First of all, she's just an unbelievably coachable young person. She's got just sort of a magnetic personality and there's a lot of that natural freshman to sophomore year growth that's happening. You know, freshman year, you're just trying to exist, keep your head above water. Right now she's talking about owning the workouts and… dominating and shooting percentages and all the things that you think about when you're a little bit older. She's gotten stronger. I think she's gotten mentally just even tougher by being a sophomore. Her growth has been really good and we're excited for what she can bring.”
If Gottlieb can build the team she wants, Marshall could be central to pushing USC towards the top half of the standings. The Women of Troy have not finished in the top half of the league since the 2013-14 season. They were 10th last year.
The Utes had an outstanding year last season, advancing to the Pac-12 Tournament championship game and returning to the NCAA Tournament. But don’t ask head coach Lynne Roberts to expect anything based on that.
“I've done this–it is my 21st year as a head coach, which I don't feel that old,” the 47-year-old Roberts said. “I've learned over the years that when it's in September you don't want to predict too much. You don't want to put too much on your team. I think it's just about the process and not necessarily about end game and March and all of that. I think that it gets about setting your expectations for taking a step back is not an option. We're not going to take a step back.”
Utah will have to keep from taking that step back without two of its biggest contributors from the last several years. Both Dru Gylten and Brynna Maxwell opted to use their extra pandemic-related year at schools closer to their homes and loved ones. For Gylten, it meant returning to South Dakota to be near her fiance and playing for perennial mid-major power South Dakota State.
“She’s gonna crush it in the Summit League,” Roberts said. “Holy cow!”
For Utah to crush it, they will need more than one person to fill Gylten’s roles.
“We will have a different feel a little bit without having just that creator on the floor,” Roberts said. “I think losing Dru…we're a more post-scoring team now. I think we can score inside better, which is going to be awesome.”
One player who can help them with their post scoring is USC transfer Pili. The junior had a fantastic debut season in 2019-20 when she accounted for 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game on her way to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors.
The two years that followed were not as successful. Pili’s scoring dropped to 11.0 PPG as a sophomore, a season during which she dealt with injuries and played fewer minutes per game. More concerning, her shooting percentage dropped from 51.1 percent to 41.5, a decrease entirely fueled by a drop in shooting from inside the arc. Her rebounding numbers dropped by more than 50 percent to just 3.8 RPG.
The downward trend continued last season as Pili tried to adapt to a new coaching staff after the retirement of Mark Trakh and the hiring of Gottlieb. Pili’s shooting percentage took another slide, landing at 33.1 percent. Her minutes and scoring dropped for a second straight season. She averaged just 7.8 PPG in her third season at USC.
Roberts believes that both health and changes of scenery and mindset can help Pili return to form. She’s already seeing the signs.
“She's doing phenomenally,” Roberts said. “I've been so impressed with her. With transfers, whether they're coming in or going out, you never really know how it'll work out. The recruiting process is microwaved. It happens so fast…I do feel like I knew her on the court, but I think her sophomore year, she wasn't healthy all year. Ankle sprains and that just really hindered her. And then just new staff last year. She just wasn't herself and didn't play very hard, and she would admit that. So she's getting in shape and working really, really hard. So it's been fun to see her and she is just a load on the block. I mean, if it's one-on-one down there, it's unbelievable.”
If Pili continues to do her part, the rest of the equation is for Roberts to solve.
“How can we get her those opportunities?” Roberts said. “How can we with our spacing and with our shooting, how can we get her going down there on the inside?”
Considering how strong Pili was in her debut season, if they can get her going down there, the Utes could be looking at another shot at the Pac-12 title.
In 2015-16, the Huskies went to the Final Four. The next season, they finished third in the Pac-12 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. Things have been a struggle ever since.
The highest UW has finished in the league over the past five years is ninth. That happened just once. The other four years, the Huskies have been 11th twice and dead last twice. Last season, the first for head coach Tina Langley, was one of those last-place finishes.
For the fans of the program, there does appear to be relief on the horizon. Things are starting to look up for UW, although it might not show on the court this year. Langley and her staff have done a great job on the recruiting trail, convincing several highly-sought recruits to give their verbal pledges to the program.
The Huskies brought in a four-player class this season. Three of those players are ESPN HoopGurlz Top 100 prospects. Guards Hannah Stiles (No. 40), Elle Ladine (No. 53), and Teagan Brown (No. 79) are joined by former BYU commit Shayla Gilmer in the 2022 class.
More highly-regarded guards are on the way in 2023. Langley has already secured verbal commitments from guards Sayvia Sellers (ESPN HoopGurlz No. 26) and Chloe Briggs (No. 77). Both players had a load of offers, including from several in the current upper echelon of the Pac-12.
What does that say about the future? As UDubWBB.com suggests, it seems like the Huskies are looking to play a lot of small ball in the coming years.
The turnaround at Washington State under fifth-year head coach Kamie Ethridge has been remarkable. After a 30-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars have gone dancing two straight seasons. Before their latest run, 1991 marked their lone appearance in March Madness.
Ethridge and her team have some questions to answer if they want to make it a third straight year in the tournament. While the Cougs return four of their five starters, the loss was a pretty big one.
Krystal Leger-Walker, the point guard who followed Ethridge from Northern Colorado to WSU, has finally exhausted her eligibility. The elder Leger-Walker sister accounted for 134 of the Cougars’ 392 assists last season. She also led the team with 49 steals.
In both categories, Krystal was followed by younger sister Charlisse Leger-Walker. Fortunately for the Cougars, the 2020-21 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year will be back. Charlisse has led WSU in scoring for the past two seasons and should do so again this season.
Also returning are fellow starters Johanna Teder, Ula Motuga, and Bella Murekatete. The quartet accounted for 68.8 percent of the Cougars’ scoring and 56 percent of their rebounding last season.
Unlike most of the Pac-12, the Cougars generally deal with much less turnover via transfer. WSU adds four freshmen to the roster, but there were no incoming transfers in the offseason. As is typical of the program, half of those freshmen hail from overseas. The two new additions, Astera Tuhina and Cia Eklöf, bring the Cougars’ total to nine players on the 13-member roster whose hometowns are outside the U.S.
The tendency to bring in international players does present problems for those evaluating the team from outside. Very little is known about the women who come from places like Helsinki, Finland and Prishtina, Kosovo.
At times, even opposing coaches who have seen WSU recruits play overseas are surprised at how quickly they adapt to the Pac-12. Such was the case with Charlisse Leger-Walker when she burst on the scene as a freshman. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes had seen her play for the New Zealand national team but said that she never expected the young guard to have the immediate impact she had in the Pac-12.
Has the next Charlisse Leger-Walker arrived in Pullman? It’s difficult to count Ethridge and her staff out when it comes to talent evaluation.