Women’s basketball team heads into season with optimism

Sophomore guard Savannah Simmons passes the ball during K-State’s women’s basketball game against Baylor in Bramlage Coliseum on Feb. 8, 2020. The Bears held the Wildcats 54-40. (File Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

Head women’s basketball coach Jeff Mittie is starting off the season with a “moneyball” mentality.

After losing three seniors to graduation — Angela Harris, Peyton Williams, and Jasauen Beard — Kansas State knew it’d take effort to replace them. Mittie knows it’s going to take more than effort to replace Williams though, who averaged 11.0 rebounds per game.

“Rebounding is an area we need to improve. We lost a great rebounder in Williams,” Mittie said in a press conference last week. “She averaged 11 a game. We are not going to replace that player. We are not going to replace Williams with one player. I have gone back and rewatched Moneyball and we are not replacing Giambi. We are going to have to replace Giambi with about three players and I have done all the math I can do but I don’t know if it works with basketball but I like the movie anyway so it is a great excuse to watch it.”

The main focus will be on sophomore post player Ayoka Lee who is coming off of a season in which she averaged a double-double — 15.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Lee comes into the season on three notable award watchlists: Lisa Leslie Award (given to the top center in college basketball), Women’s Jersey Mike’s Naismith Trophy and Wade Trophy.

Mittie believes his center is one of the team’s main strengths.

“I think the strength is we have a great end of offense player in Ayoka Lee,” he said. “She established herself as a player we could throw it to and finish at a young age and I think she has had a good solid offseason. I think the difference in her game will be. Last year we really didn’t facilitate offense through her as much as we threw it to her when she was in a scoring position.”

Mittie is looking also forward to incorporating Lee more into the team’s pick-and-roll offense.

The Wildcats are expected to see improvements with their three-point shooting as well. Redshirt junior Rachel Ranke, who is a near 35 percent shooter behind the arc, will be back in the lineup for K-State after missing 21 games, 20-straight to end the season, last year. K-State also brings in Texas Tech transfer senior Sydney Goodson who knocked down 68 threes last season alone.

“I think we have improved our 3-point shooting,” Mittie said. “We get Ranke back. I think Chrissy Carr has had a really good offseason. The addition of Goodson, who knocked down 68 two years ago in the league. I think she led the league in 40-minute games played at the guard spot. Those things are all improvements. Last year’s team just could not make an outside shot consistently and things just got very crowded around both Lee and Williams.”

Mittie feels like the spacing on this season’s team will be better than last season, which will allow for more offensive production. He really wanted to work on giving Lee more space to work in the post.

“We went into the offseason really wanting to do the best we could to create space for Lee in there and I think we have done that,” he said.

Weaknesses so far for the Wildcats are headlined by the rebounding, but also a struggle to handle the basketball. Nagging injuries have also hurt K-State early in the year, something Mittie believes a lot of teams are “dealing with.”

So far, sophomore Emilee Ebert has missed time due to injury, along with junior Savvy Simmons who missed time with a strained quad last week. Goodson has missed time with a strained achilles, and an undisclosed player missed time with plantar fasciitis.

Heading into the start of the season’s schedule, K-State is looking to just stay healthy. With COVID-19, staying healthy is more important than ever.

“We are just grinding our way through it (COVID-19),” Mittie said. “I think the biggest issue with basketball, while we haven’t had a lot of cases, the contact tracing is generally the problem and I think that is what you are seeing with other programs. Certainly, we dealt with that throughout the fall just like everybody else.”

The NCAA is expected to make a decision on the minimum amount of players teams can play with for this COVID-plagued season. The anticipated minimum number is six players, something Mittie also mentioned.

The Wildcats were selected to finish fourth in the Big 12 Conference preseason poll — the highest projection since Mittie took over the program in 2014.

K-State is expected to win a majority of their non-conference games. A lone power five match-up with SEC’s Kentucky awaits at the back-end of the non-conference schedule. The Wildcats finished last season No. 16 in the AP Women’s Poll.

A win against Kentucky would likely give the Wildcats a perfect record and a national ranking heading into conference play.

K-State is slated to start the season unofficially with an exhibition at Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas, on Nov. 25. The official season starts with a home game against Southern on Nov. 29 in Bramlage Coliseum. That game is scheduled to tip-off at 1 p.m. with audio through K-State Sports Network.