Beyond boldface names, KU women’s basketball cultivating new depth

photo by: Kansas Athletics

Kansas guard Laia Conesa dribbles up the court during the game against Greek Select in Athens, Greece, on Aug. 13, 2023.

Kansas City, Mo. — Kansas women’s basketball coach Brandon Schneider still remembers a vivid impression he got when his team played Stanford in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

“One through five, I thought we were really, really competitive,” Schneider told reporters at Big 12 Conference media day Tuesday. “It’s when we went to six, seven, eight, they went to their six, seven and eight, where there was a real separation.”

If Schneider has his way this season, that won’t be the case anymore for the Jayhawks. His returning super-senior all-conference trio of Zakiyah Franklin, Taiyanna Jackson and Holly Kersgieter draws plenty of attention, as do returning senior guard Wyvette Mayberry and highly touted five-star freshman S’Mya Nichols, whom Schneider plans to slot in as the fifth starter.

But it’s the depth, Schneider says, that could be “the key to our team.”

Beyond returning contributors like forward Zsófia Telegdy, that means a variety of new faces who haven’t gotten the same spotlight as Nichols, including first-year guard Laia Conesa (part of a four-woman freshman class that also includes Paris Gaines and McKenzie Smith) and transfers Ryan Cobbins and Skyler Gill.

photo by: AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

Alabama guard Ryan Cobbins (10) blocks a shot by LSU guard Flau’jae Johnson (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

photo by: AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

North Alabama’s Skyler Gill, right, drives to the basket against Ohio State’s Taylor Thierry during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio.

Cobbins, from Kansas City, and Gill, from Wichita, are both Kansas natives looking to make an impact back in their home state.

“I think that played a really big factor to be honest, to come back for (Ryan) and spend her graduate year, her final year, with friends and family being able to support her was a big part of her decision,” Schneider said. “And then Skyler both wanted to move to the Power Five level and, I think, had grown up a Kansas fan during her time in Wichita.”

Their decision to join the team, Franklin said, “just lets you know that Kansas is the place to be.”

“Says a lot about our program, it’s really special,” she added, “and honestly, we’re happy to have them as additions to our team.”

Cobbins spent three years at North Dakota State, where she overlapped with current KU assistant Morgan Paige. She averaged double-digit points per game in 82 starts for the Bison, then transferred to Alabama and came off the bench. As Kersgieter noted, that means she knows what it takes to play at the Power Five level.

Gill is an interesting case as a 5-foot-11 player, listed as a guard/forward, who was nonetheless one of the nation’s top shot blockers and a two-time conference defensive player of the year during her time at North Alabama.

“Skyler’s biggest adjustment has been just that, I think, the fundamentals, how important they are at this level,” Kersgieter said. “She’s doing great, she’s super athletic … She played a ‘4’ and a ‘5’ at her old school. She’s my height (actually an inch shorter) and she jumps the highest in the gym.”

She ranked No. 9 in blocks nationally to Jackson’s No. 6. The two will now share a frontcourt.

“That’s crazy,” Jackson said. “We got two shot blockers. We got two rim protectors. Like, what?”

Schneider said they could deploy Gill somewhat differently than she was used at North Alabama, but that she will certainly find a role.

“I think Skyler’s got the opportunity to really contribute, especially on the defensive end of the floor,” Schneider said. “I know that she’s blocked a lot of shots. That may change a little bit, in terms of maybe how we want her to play, but she’s going to be a very, very effective defender in our league.”

Also projected for immediate minutes is Conesa, whose freshman status belies her time representing her home country of Spain at various youth championships.

“She’s going to play a lot for us,” Schneider said. “She’s going to be a key contributor, probably one of our first perimeter subs, even though a freshman, has a very high basketball IQ and has a lot of experience competing at the highest level internationally.”

Conesa was one of several players to impress on the Jayhawks’ summer trip to Italy and Greece, putting up a 13-point, 12-rebound double-double against the Greek Select team. Cobbins also showed off her ability to connect from long range in the pair of exhibitions, which could help bolster a KU backcourt in need of more outside shooting.

The KU veteran core hasn’t found it too challenging to incorporate these newcomers into the fold.

“It can be tough sometimes, but honestly, they’re making it so easy that they’re just able to learn fast and catch on (to) things quickly, and that they’re just very coachable,” Franklin said. “Not even just from coach Brandon, but just taking in our feedback and stuff like that.”

Added Kersgieter: “Either the newcomers feel really excluded and that can be a negative thing and you have this bubble, or you can use that bubble to incorporate them and include them and bring them into a program that — like you said — has a core, and just keep building it, keep developing it. Then you really have a team and it works out.”


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