Lee’s health, team’s defensive mindset and leadership stand out from Big 12 Media Day

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(Left to right) Center Ayoka Lee, guard Serena Sundell and guard Gabby Gregory take questions at Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City, Missouri. Along with interviews, it was announced the women's basketball Big 12 Tournament would be played in T-Mobile Center for the first time in conference history. (Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Head coach Jeff Mittie joined guards Gabby Gregory and Serena Sundell as well as center Ayoka Lee for Big 12 Media Day on Tuesday. The head coach and his three team leaders spoke on many topics for the 2023-24 season.

Ayoka Lee’s health

No other story may be bigger than the return of Lee. Missing all of the 2022-23 season because of injury, the star center’s interior presence was greatly missed.

“Sitting out last year, it really made me reflect on the places where I was able to step in on the court where I couldn’t do that on the sideline,” Lee said. “I saw just some gaps and my teammates striving to fill them, but knowing that, like man, they’re striving to fill them because I filled that the previous year.”

(Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Lee will need to regain chemistry with the team and also her old form. Mittie said he believes Lee is about 85% in terms of participation in practice during her recovery but has full faith in her health decisions even without full practice participation.

“One of the things Yoki [Ayoka] and I have is real good communication through the process with the knee,” Mittie said. “She’s the boss in regards to what she can and what she can’t do.”

(Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Mittie has tried to contain Lee’s participation, but she still wants to practice.

“I’ve tried to be intentional with maybe pulling her back and telling her I don’t want you to go today,” Mittie said. “And there’s been times where she said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this drill today’ and I’m like, ‘Alright, that’s fine.’ You know because that tells me she’s confident enough to do it, but we’re gonna try to be smart here. These next two will be critical. We want to be going the right direction and not have that big setback.”

Defensive mindset

The return of Lee brings a much needed help to the defense which allowed 67.3 points per game last season. Mittie said he does not want the return of his star to be the only reason the team’s defense improves and has seen progress this offseason.

“I think that this team over the summer made the commitment to be better,” Mittie said. “I’ve been really impressed with Gabby Gregory making that commitment defensively. It’s an area I talked to her about in the summer. She has really improved. Serena Sundell I think is shining the dribble off better than she has in her career.”

(Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Mittie’s leaders know they must also improve defensively for the team to grow in that area on the court.

“I’ve been known as a really good offensive player through my career, but have not been the best defensive player,” Gregory said. “I know what’s going on on the floor and so I think that’s what he [Mittie] was looking for most, was I see what’s happening, and I’m able to vocalize that and I’m good at talking and things like that. … So I think that’s where I’ve really made strides is just in my communication on defense.”

Guard Gabby Gregory talks about why she came to K-State out of the transfer portal. (Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Others have impressed Mittie, including the twins on the team.

“Jaelyn Glenn I thought had a great defensive year because our team was not good defensively,” Mittie said. “I should also mention Brylee Glenn because I think she … in the last week has really made good improvements. So I like what I’m seeing right now.”

In the end, the greatest difference on defense will come from Lee, the 2022 Big 12 Defensive Team center.

“What I think is most important is just the communication piece of being a center,” Lee said. “I think you see a lot more than like, what the guards are gonna see, and being able to see those things and communicate them early, I think is very valuable. And then just being able to help and cover the guards when they might not see something or make a play soon enough.”

Team leadership

The team’s leadership has been a key talking point from Mittie since the team’s own media day in September, where Lee, Gregory and Sundell also spoke to the media alongside him. They are the three players he most wants to see take the reins of the team.

“They [Lee and Gregory] are not afraid to say the truth to people, and that is often a quality lost in this generation, where they’re afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings,” Mittie said. “And both of them are mature enough to say the truth to people, and they say it in the right way.”

Their presence has helped Sundell grow as a leader.

“She [Sundell] found her voice this summer and has continued to use it, I think in a really, really good way,” Mittie said. “She has some great leaders in Gabby and Yoki, and I think that’s going to help her even more. I think maybe in the past, Gabby being new and Yoki being gone, she felt too much pressure to know everything to say and now she can be just a supplemental piece to that. I’ve been really pleased with her.”

Sundell said that her experience helped her reach a new stage as a leader.

“We have a lot of people who can score the ball, but it’s really, ‘What is going to be the best shot for our team?’” Sundell said. “That’s just something I’m trying to lead our team through by example and then also vocally. I think in the offseason that was one of my focuses too, just taking that next step and helping our underclassmen and newcomers kind of just learn the ropes to this program.”

(Avery Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: The story was fully written by Luke Lazarczyk. Credit is given to Avery Johnson for the multimedia element. Additionally, added dateline to lede as we reported this from Kansas City, Missouri.

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