Three storylines to watch as KU women’s basketball heads off to Europe
photo by: Journal-World file photo
Looking to build on the two most successful seasons of head coach Brandon Schneider’s tenure by far, the Kansas women’s basketball team will get an early start in the coming days on its next campaign.
The Jayhawks are embarking on an 11-day jaunt through the Mediterranean from Sunday through Aug. 16, taking on an Italian Select Team in Rome on Wednesday and a Greek Select Team in Athens four days later along the way.
It’s their first international trip since a 2016 visit to France and Switzerland, and while the pandemic delayed this current itinerary — teams are permitted to travel abroad once every four years — the trip, and the 10 additional practices it provides, could not have come at a more pivotal time for KU.
When the Jayhawks last went overseas, they were coming off a 6-25 season in which they failed to win a Big 12 Conference game. If they had gone again in 2020, it still would have been following a season that saw an 11-0 preseason derailed by a 1-11 start to league play. Instead, now, KU gets that extra practice time and experience after going 25-11 (9-9 Big 12) and winning the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, with a similar group of players to the one that had reached the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 12 years a season earlier.
This year’s KU lineup will also look quite familiar. The Jayhawks managed to bring back four players who started a combined 133 games (of a possible 180 starting spots) last year — Zakiyah Franklin, Taiyanna Jackson, Holly Kersgieter and Wyvette Mayberry — no small feat especially considering that three are returning for a fifth collegiate season.
Of course, there are still plenty of questions to answer about this year’s roster, especially with one of those starting spots unexpectedly vacant.
photo by: Damon Young / Kansas Athletics
• How does S’Mya Nichols fit in right away? Schneider could go essentially two different directions with his lineup this season. He could choose to start a second post player alongside the 6-foot-6 center Jackson, as he often did last season when 6-foot-3 forward Ioanna Chatzileonti was healthy. That was rare, as Chatzileonti missed most of the Big 12 schedule due to a foot injury and ended up playing in just 11 games; she has since transferred to Oklahoma State.
Schneider’s other option is to space out four guards (albeit some with forward-caliber size) with Jackson still anchoring the middle, as he frequently did last season with Franklin, Mayberry, Kersgieter and Chandler Prater. But Prater also unexpectedly transferred to OSU, creating a hole in this lineup, too.
The obvious answer would be to fill the hole in that second lineup with S’Mya Nichols, a 6-foot guard from Shawnee Mission West ranked as one of the top prospects in the country who spurned bigger programs to build up KU in her home state. Schneider has said he expects her to contribute immediately, and Nichols said in June she hopes to bring more energy and aggression to the squad. As an athletic scorer who can defend all over the court thanks to her size, and the most prestigious recruit KU has had in a long time, she would appear a shoo-in to replace Prater and start right away.
Italy and Greece will provide the first opportunity to see how she fits into the established rhythms of her four teammates. If she needs more time to acclimate, or if KU is taking on a more post-focused team, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for Schneider to give a start to returning forward Zsófia Telegdy, now with a year of experience under her belt.
• Is this all the depth the Jayhawks have? This question won’t be resolved on the court, but as the KU men’s team recently demonstrated, the Jayhawks can still add from afar. Schneider told the Journal-World in June that he was still looking to add players for the 2023-24 season; after losing Chatzileonti, Prater and most of his bench to the transfer portal, KU has just 10 players on scholarship, three below its maximum of 13. The amount of available talent ahead of a school year that begins in about two weeks is rather low, and the Jayhawks have typically carried 14 or 15 players (including walk-ons) in recent years, so it’s odd to see them this thin this close to the season.
Franklin, Jackson, Kersgieter and Mayberry all played at least 30 minutes a game last season, and Telegdy and the 6-foot-4 centers Nadira Eltayeb and Danai Papadopoulou provide easy replacements in the frontcourt.
photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley
But in the absence of any experienced guard depth, Schneider will have to throw fellow freshmen Laia Conesa and McKenzie Smith, along with Nichols, into the fire right away. (Smith was even a rather late addition, as she didn’t commit until mid-May following a previous commitment to North Texas.) The 11-day period the Jayhawks spend overseas could get a sense of these players’ immediate readiness, as well as whether they intend to pursue adding anyone else before it’s too late.
• How much will European experience help? Not in terms of the results of these two exhibition games — which hold little weight — but in terms of having helped more broadly develop some of KU’s younger players. In what has been a regular occurrence for the Jayhawks in recent years, as they have possessed something of an international flair, several players have competed overseas for their native countries, including Conesa for Spain in a bronze-medal campaign at the under-18 European Championships and, in recent days, Papadopoulou for Greece and Telegdy for Hungary in the under-20 equivalent.
These are all younger players looking to carve out roles this season and they should be in good form heading into the trip to Italy and Greece (a homecoming for Papadopoulou) and more accustomed to international play. It could provide a chance for them, therefore, to make strong impressions and a case for additional playing time entering the 2023-24 campaign.