Evaluating lineup possibilities for KU women’s basketball

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas head coach Brandon Schneider instructs guard S'Mya Nichols Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, against Houston.

With Butler Community College all-time scoring leader Freddie Wallace’s commitment to Kansas women’s basketball on Tuesday, the Jayhawks’ roster may well be set for the 2024-25 season, five months before it begins.

Head coach Brandon Schneider said on his “Hawk Talk” radio show on April 29 that KU was looking to add eight players after losing seven in the offseason; Wallace is the Jayhawks’ eighth addition.

To review, KU has lost longtime stalwarts Zakiyah Franklin, Holly Kersgieter and Taiyanna Jackson to graduation, along with fellow super-senior Ryan Cobbins. It then had Paris Gaines (Georgia Southern), Skyler Gill (Florida Gulf Coast) and Zsófia Telegdy (Western Kentucky) decide to transfer.

In exchange, the Jayhawks are bringing in freshmen Zoe Canfield (Topeka), Carla Osma (Madrid, Spain) and Regan Williams (Kansas City, Missouri), along with transfers Sania Copeland (Wisconsin), Brittany Harshaw (Creighton), Elle Evans (North Dakota State), Jordan Webster (UC Riverside) and, most recently, Wallace.

Returning players, who are the minority, include guards Laia Conesa, Wyvette Mayberry and S’Mya Nichols, guard/forward McKenzie Smith and centers Nadira Eltayeb and Danai Papadopoulou.

Schneider and his staff now have a lot of work to do to figure out exactly how all these pieces fit together. It’s hard to predict how any given transfer could adapt to KU, as every player comes from different levels of competition with different amounts of experience.

There are, however, two virtual certainties when it comes to next year’s KU lineup.

Sure things at guard

Nichols, the five-star freshman from Overland Park of whom much was expected, managed to deliver in her first year at KU. The guard seamlessly integrated herself into a veteran group, even taking charge frequently, and was named to the All-Big 12 Conference first team after leading the Jayhawks in points (15.4) and assists (2.7) per game. She showed composure in intense situations and used a seemingly limitless array of moves to get to the basket, while also punishing teams with her long-range shooting on occasion (30-for-75, or 40%, from deep).

Mayberry, who announced she will return for a fifth year (her third at Kansas), will also undoubtedly take on a significant role as a team leader. She is likely the Jayhawks’ best defender and will continue to serve as an effective ball handler and distributor from her point-guard spot. She had a bit of a down year in scoring in 2023-24, perhaps because of Nichols’ arrival, as she dropped from 11.4 to 9.7 points per game, driven in part by a reduction in how frequently she got to the line — 116 free-throw attempts in 2022-23 compared to 69 last season.

These two will serve as the bridge between the set of KU teams that just made three consecutive postseason appearances after a lengthy absence — a pair of NCAA Tournament berths with a Women’s National Invitation Tournament title in the middle — and what figures to be a new era with Nichols as the team’s cornerstone.

Off-ball options

Two of Schneider’s offseason priorities were to add size and outside shooting. He accomplished these over and over again. The acquisitions of players like Canfield, Harshaw, Osma and Webster will not only help KU replace the production of Kersgieter, who is 5-foot-11 and shot 62-for-154 (40.3%) from beyond the arc last season, but also will allow the Jayhawks to match up better against certain high-level teams.

For example, when KU ran into USC in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Trojans started four players who were at least 6 feet tall. The Jayhawks had two, one of whom was the 6-foot Nichols. Loading up on big wings gives the Jayhawks a chance to better contest opponents like that while also allowing Nichols to potentially operate at a more natural position on the court.

How KU chooses to line up at this spot could depend on how quickly its freshmen adapt. Schneider has said he expects the 6-foot-1 Osma to “transition quickly.” She and her compatriot Conesa, who played only sparingly as a freshman after the coaching staff had high expectations for her, could siphon off some minutes at off-ball guard spots.

Webster, who will be a fifth-year senior, has to be an immediate favorite to start, though. As the primary engine of an upstart UC Riverside team in 2023-24, she led the Big West Conference in scoring with 17.1 points while adding 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. The 5-foot-10 guard put up 20 points against the same USC team that beat KU and 18 more against UCLA.

The primary knock on her is her inefficiency as a shooter, but given that she will not bear nearly as much responsibility for powering the Jayhawks’ offense, she could be even more effective in somewhat smaller doses.

Harshaw comes from a higher level of competition in the Big East Conference with Creighton, but has only played 144 career minutes. With three years of eligibility remaining, the Andover native could be something of a longer-term play.

One thing worth noting is that Schneider’s level of commitment to playing a taller lineup for extended stretches may determine the ceiling on potential minutes for Copeland, a 5-foot-7 guard who provides another strong defensive option and an experienced outside shooter. If Copeland were to play alongside Mayberry, Nichols and Webster, with one post player, the Jayhawks would be a few cumulative inches smaller than they were in 2023-24. That may be a useful lineup in some cases, but it’s certainly matchup-dependent; Copeland could end up seeing a lot of her minutes as a substitute for either Mayberry or Nichols next season.

She does have some built-in chemistry with Nichols that might provide an advantage, as the two were youth teammates.

The frontcourt

This is the most fascinating position group for the Jayhawks by far. That’s in part because they have had such a reliable option on both sides of the ball in Jackson for three years, alleviating the need for much of a rotation at this position (except when Jackson got in foul trouble), and in part because of the unique skill set of Evans.

The incoming junior from Edwardsville, Illinois, a former Summit League freshman of the year, is 6-foot-3 and shot 45.7% from beyond the arc on 164 attempts during the 2023-24 season. She averaged 15.5 points per game and will provide an excellent pick-and-pop option for players like Nichols and Mayberry.

In a small-ball lineup like the Copeland one, Evans could serve as the lone center. At North Dakota State, though, she started alongside a 6-foot-2 forward, Abbie Draper, who was not as much of an outside scoring threat. KU could opt for a similar tactic by pairing her with the likes of Wallace, the freshman Williams (whom Schneider expects will have an “immediate impact” on offense) or, depending on her recovery and progression following last season’s Achilles injury, Eltayeb.

Schneider said of Eltayeb, who will be a redshirt junior, in January that she had a great summer prior to the injury and that “We really felt like we had a definite option at the 5 spot after Twin (Jackson). Nadira was really looking forward to being in that role and then transitioning into and understanding, ‘Hey, when Twin’s gone, I’m moving into that spot.'”

Eltayeb provides the most size of those options at 6-foot-4, but despite having been in college since the 2020-21 season (which she played at Eastern Arizona College) has rarely been a featured player, only playing about six minutes per game since her arrival in Lawrence.

Conclusion

Schneider has often remarked upon how eye-opening it was for him to see the disparity between Stanford’s sixth, seventh and eighth best players and his own bench during the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Just over two years later, the fact that there are so many possible permutations of the Jayhawks’ lineup — at least at this stage of the offseason — speaks well of the KU program’s progress.

Last year’s bench, at least besides Cobbins, underwhelmed at times, but with the sheer variety of compelling options that KU brought in during the offseason, some of them are bound to hit. It’ll be a new look for KU, but there’s a lot to like about a Mayberry/Webster/Nichols/Evans quartet seeing heavy minutes with Copeland, Eltayeb, Wallace and potentially others filling key roles.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas guard Wyvette Mayberry instructs teammates during a play against Baylor Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

photo by: AP Photo/Ashley Landis

UC Riverside guard Jordan Webster (32) controls the ball against UCLA guard Charisma Osborne (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Journal-World

Kansas guard S’Mya Nichols makes a jump shot against Kansas State Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

photo by: AP Photo/Abbie Parr

North Dakota State guard Elle Evans (21) shoots as Minnesota forward Mallory Heyer (24) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, in Minneapolis.

photo by: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Wisconsin’s Sania Copeland tries to get past Iowa’s Molly Davis during the second half of a women’s NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Madison, Wis.

photo by: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Kansas center Nadira Eltayeb (33) attempts to score as Texas A&M guard Sahara Jones (24) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022, in Lawrence, Kan.

photo by: Butler Community College Athletics

Butler sophomore forward Freddie Wallace looks to score during a game against Dodge City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, in Dodge City.

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