OPINION: Women’s basketball team primed for 2022-23 Big 12 run

Then-freshman center Ayoka Lee leaps up for a shot during K-State's women's basketball team’s Senior Day game against Kansas in Bramlage Coliseum on March 8, 2020. The Wildcats took the Jayhawks 83-63. (Archive photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

Watching the Kansas State women’s basketball team on Halloween against Washburn made me excited — a little too excited — for head coach Jeff Mittie’s team, especially for the next two seasons.

Anyone who follows Big 12 women’s basketball knows junior center Ayoka Lee is special. The 6 foot 6 inch dominating post has racked up 12 Big 12 freshman of the week awards, two First-Team Big 12 awards and was unanimously named to the preseason All-Big 12 team coming into this year.

Frankly, there’s no stopping “Yokie” in the paint — no matter the team — as she’s averaged 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game over her young career. Lee is a generational talent for a program like K-State, but that isn’t the reason why K-State fans should raise their expectations over the next two years.

Jeff Mittie’s defense was solid during the 2020-21 season, giving up just 67.1 points per game — fifth in the Big 12. Offensively, on the other hand, teams would double- or triple-team Lee in the post. Without a true offensive creator, the Wildcats finished last in the conference with an abysmal 63.0 points per game — five points less than ninth place.

To make matters worse, K-State lost its second-leading scorer to the transfer pool as junior guard Chrissy Carr left for Syracuse. Going into the 2021 offseason, Mittie’s biggest challenge was getting offensive pieces to surround his star center. After just one game against a Division II opponent, I believe he struck gold.

Mittie brought in six newcomers to the team for the 2021-22 season: sophomore transfers Rebekah Dallinger and Heavenly Greer, freshmen Serena Sundell and Malene Lind Pedersen and twins Jaelyn and Brylee Glenn. Each player brings strength to an area where the Wildcats were lacking.

Greer, who played one season at Oklahoma, brings a presence under the basketball outside of the center position that Lee and sophomore Taylor Lauterbach seemed to have anchored down. Greer will provide K-State with a player who can post up or hang out around the free-throw line to get the ball down low.

Dallinger, an Australian who played one year at Miles Community College in Montana, should give the Wildcats a high volume of scoring at a high shooting percentage as she becomes more comfortable at the Division I level. Dallinger was named the junior college player of the year this past season after averaging 25.8 points per game at a 48.7 percent clip.

Pedersen, who comes to K-State from Aabyhøj, Denmark, should bring a winning mentality to a K-State program that has finished close to the bottom of the conference in recent years. The Danish guard won three European Girls Basketball League championships and was the league MVP all three seasons.

The Glenn twins come to K-State from Kansas City, Missouri, as all-around great guards. What I loved most from the game against Washburn was their energy on the court. Both players were talking loudly, diving on the floor and hyping up their teammates as freshmen. Jaelyn — alongside Sundell — even found herself with a starting spot in the contest.

Sundell is the player I am most excited about moving forward and the biggest reason why I am excited about this squad. A long point guard at 6 foot 1 inch, Sundell showed a veteran presence in her first game on the floor, as she was always in the right position on defense and made passes only experienced point guards typically make.

It isn’t exactly fair for me to make this comparison as she played basketball in the same high school league as me, but Sundell reminds me a lot of Iowa State sophomore Emily Ryan. Both players are long, smart point guards used to a high volume of scoring, but careful with the ball. Both have great court vision, are always aware on defense, aren’t afraid to create on offense and are talkative on the court but subdued off of it. I really think that Serena Sundell can provide the type of all-around game from a point guard that is necessary to win in college basketball.

Putting these newcomers beside the pieces in place sets the basketball team up for a run — next year. I think the team should shoot for a top-four finish in the conference this year, as Baylor, Texas and Iowa State are all projected to do well this year.

If the team can use this year as a building block, this incoming class can get confident enough to give Ayoka Lee and junior Emilee Ebert a good farewell season next year. If they can take down conference juggernaut Baylor for a conference championship, it would end up as one of the biggest seasons in school history.

I know it’s crazy to say all of this based on just one exhibition game, but, as I said, this is just an overreaction.