Major women’s basketball programs return to center stage

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey reacts to a play in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Baton Rouge, La. on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. ( AP Photo/Derick Hingle)

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey reacts to a play in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Baton Rouge, La. on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. ( AP Photo/Derick Hingle)


Kellie Harper is working to make Tennessee’s women’s basketball program once again a title contender and bring the Lady Vols closer to their traditionally elite status.

She also has company in other big-name programs.

The Lady Vols are ranked fifth in Harper’s third season at her alma mater. Tennessee is among a group of AP Top 25 teams returning to the limelight after recent coaching changes. Teams like No. 12 LSU, No. 15 Georgia Tech, No. 16 Duke, No. 20 Notre Dame, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 23 Oklahoma are thriving and ready. to make an impact in the playoffs under coaches hired since 2019.

Two of those teams, UNC and Notre Dame, meet on Sunday.

“You don’t just push a button and win games,” Harper said after Thursday’s win at Vanderbilt. “There are a lot of things that come into play, a lot on the pitch, off the pitch you have the right staff. You must have the right system. … There’s a lot of basketball left to play, so we’re thinking about it because it’s a lot of growth opportunities for us.

As Harper noted, there are still about two months until Selection Sunday. Still, these teams lined up to host the first games of the NCAA Tournament.

“The teams we’re talking about are part of the conversation on the national stage right now,” said Debbie Antonelli, college basketball analyst for multiple outlets, including ESPN. “None of these teams were mentioned three years ago.

“Tennessee was not in the game to go to the Final Four. North Carolina, Duke, they weren’t in the game to go to the Final Four. Oklahoma was not discussed as a top-16 team that could host the first and second rounds. And that’s the big key to the women’s game, that’s a huge part of it.

So far, the Lady Vols (16-1) are in the best position for that with the Tigers (16-2). LSU lured three-time national champion and Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey from Baylor last spring to spark a program that hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2014.

At Georgia Tech, third-year coach Nell Fortner took the Yellow Jackets (13-3) to the Sweet 16 last year in the program’s first trip to the NCAA since 2014. She also provided stability after the layoff of longtime coach MaChelle Joseph, while Courtney Banghart took over in North Carolina at around the same time after a tumultuous period resulting in the resignation of Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell.

For Banghart, who left Princeton after 12 years, the formula started with diving into recruiting and then sprinkling in graduate transfer assistance. His first recruiting class was ranked No. 11 by ESPN and led by five-star prospect Deja Kelly, now a sophomore and UNC’s leading scorer with 17.6 points. Its next class registered at No. 3, behind only South Carolina and UConn.

As a result, the Tar Heels (14-1) are in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2015-16 preseason poll.

“There are so many different styles,” Banghart said. “It’s like the NBA. … There are many ways to build a team. One is through the draft and the other is through the trade leads. And it’s kind of like that in college; one is through your recruitment and the other through your transfer process.You are irresponsible not to monitor both.

A few miles behind rival Duke, sophomore coach Kara Lawson took a different approach. The Blue Devils – who called off their season after four games in Lawson’s freshman year – replenished with seven power conference transfers, with Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) and Celeste Taylor (Texas) as regular starters in an offense balance.

Duke (11-3) is ranked this year for the first time since the 2018-19 preseason poll.

“I feel from the start of the year…we were a team that would continue to grow, but would have a chance to have a higher level of growth than maybe other teams because we would win this continuity throughout the season,” Lawson said. “We win it on the fly.”

At Notre Dame, sophomore coach Niele Ivey started the Fighting Irish again (12-3) after posting a losing record in Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw’s final season, followed by a 10- 10 in Ivey’s debut.

Ivey credited the arrival of backcourt assist in McDonald’s All-American Sonia Citron and fellow freshman Olivia Miles, who leads the nation with an average of 7.8 assists. The team also added the transfer of Stanford graduate Maya Dodson to the enhanced returnees.

“They understand legacy and they understand this program,” Ivey said. “So our goal this summer was to keep working to get that Notre Dame back that everyone knows and play at a high level.”

And in Oklahoma, the Sooners (14-2) are ranked for the first time since the start of the 2017-18 season in their freshman year under Jennie Baranczyk, who left Drake to replace retired Sherri Coale.

Oklahoma was 32-52 the past three seasons but is coming off its first win over Baylor since 2015.

“I like the balance we have. I like the belief we have. I love the fact that we kept playing,” Baranczyk said afterwards. “When we focus on ourselves and that we play like that and share the ball, it’s really fun. The dashboard then takes care of itself when we do this.


AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.


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