After an impressive conference performance by South Florida last season, the reigning AAC women’s basketball regular season and tournament champions appear to be primed for another big year.
With nearly all significant contributors returning for the defending champs, only Houston and UCF appear to have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Bulls. In-state rival UCF had a stellar season last year and earned a spot in the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed while handing South Florida one of its only two conference losses. Houston finished the season with a 12-5 conference record, good for third in the AAC, while dealing South Florida its only other conference loss last season and earning a spot in the WNIT.
Both UCF and Houston should be able to contend with South Florida again this year, and it would also be foolish to ignore veteran coach Lisa Stockton’s Tulane squad, which has the talent and coaching to be a dark horse in what appears to be a three-team race right now.
AAC Women’s Basketball Preview 2021-22
FAVORITES: South Florida, UCF, Houston
Head coach: Jose Fernandez (22nd season)
2020-21 record: 19-4 (13-2 in AAC)
Conference finish: 1st
With four of the top five scorers returning from a team that won the AAC women’s basketball regular season and tournament championships and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, South Florida is in the drivers’ seat again in 2021-22.
Reigning AAC Coach of the Year Jose Fernandez has created a culture of winning, and with sophomore shooting guard Elena Tsineke and veteran forward Bethy Munga leading the charge, the Bulls show no signs of slowing down. Add 6-foot-4 transfer forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu into the mix, whom Coach Fernandez plucked from Memphis, and South Florida is beaming with talent.
The nation is taking notice, and South Florida is ranked No. 21 in the Preseason AP Poll. Coach Fernandez and staff have all the pieces to make a run this season. Expect to see the Bulls vying for another AAC title this year and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach: Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (6th season)
2020-21 record: 16-5 (12-2 in AAC)
Conference finish: 2nd
UCF returns all five of its top scorers from last year’s team that only lost two conference contests and earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and staff have the Knights in an excellent position to take a shot at rival and reigning-champion South Florida, after dealing the Bulls one of their only two conference losses last year.
With five players capable of scoring in double figures every game, UCF has the balance that coaches love and opponents fear. Leading the way are veteran guards Tay Sanders and Diamond Battles, who head up a quintet that will be difficult to contain as the season progresses.
Head coach: Ronald Hughey (8th season)
2020-21 record: 17-8 (12-5 in AAC)
Conference finish: 3rd
Houston had a solid 12-5 conference finish and berth to the 2021 WNIT last year. There’s no doubt, however, that head coach Ronald Hughey’s Cougars want an improved outcome this season, and they just might be able to pull it off.
While the transfer of scoring leader Miya Crump dealt a major offseason blow, the return of Julia Blackshell-Fair following a season-ending knee injury, and the emergence of rising star guard Laila Blair provide the firepower and experience to be just as competitive this season. In addition, experienced guards Dymond Gladney and Britney Onyeje provide the scoring balance and depth needed to win over the long haul.
CONTENDERS: tULANE, TEMPLE
Head coach: Lisa Stockton (28th season)
2020-21 record: 18-9 (12-6 in AAC)
Conference finish: 4th
Heading into her 28th season as Tulane’s head coach, Lisa Stockton and the Green Wave hope to challenge the top three and push their way into the AAC women’s basketball title hunt. After one of its best seasons in the past decade, Tulane hopes to carry the winning momentum into this year.
However, the transfer of prolific scorer JerKaila Jordan to Mississippi State in the offseason was a huge setback. The Green Wave’s chances at taking the next step in program success rest primarily on the shoulders of seniors Krystal Freeman and Arsula Clark. Beyond Freeman, Clark, and junior Dynah Jones, offense could be hard to generate, and Stockton’s crew needs role players to transform into playmakers in a hurry.
Head coach: Tonya Cardoza (14th season)
2020-21 record: 11-11 (11-7 in AAC)
Conference finish: 5th
Coach Tonya Cardoza returns a talented trio of scorers in Mia Davis, Jasha Clinton, and Alexa Williamson, but the Owls will need to develop more depth to challenge the conference leaders this season.
Davis, a graduate student, is a special talent, averaging nearly 18 points per game last season en route to being named First-Team All-AAC and the Preseason AAC Player of the Year heading into this season. As talented as Davis is, and even with the solid contributions of Clinton and Williamson, it would be surprising to see Temple near the top of the league without the emergence of at least two other consistent contributors this season.
STUCK IN PURGATORY: WICHITA STATE, EAST CAROLINA, CINCINNATI
Head coach: Keitha Adams (5th season)
2020-21 record: 6-12 (2-9 in AAC)
Conference finish: 9th
With the return of leading scorer Asia Strong and the majority of her supporting cast intact, Wichita State has a shot to be much improved this season. However, head coach Keitha Adams is yet to post a winning record in her four seasons with the Shockers, and the transfer of promising guard Rachel Johnson to Georgia Southern dealt another blow to a program looking to climb the conference ranks. Expect Strong to stand out again, but Wichita State will likely dwell in the middle to bottom AAC women’s basketball again in 2021-22.
Head coach: Kim McNeill (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 8-14 (6-10 in AAC)
Conference finish: 6th
After another disappointing conference finish last season, Kim McNeill and East Carolina hope to get the program moving in a positive direction this year. It will be tough sledding for the Pirates after the transfer of leading scorer Lashonda Monk to Ole Miss. But with a slew of transfers and freshmen joining returning standout Taniyah Thompson and crew, McNeill’s Pirates have a shot to at least improve on last year’s performance.
Head coach: Michelle Clark-Heard (4th season)
2020-21 record: 8-16 (6-12 in AAC)
Conference finish: 7th
In her first two seasons at Cincinnati, head coach Michelle Clark-Heard posted impressive finishes, going 24-11 (third in AAC) in her first year and 22-9 (second in AAC) in her second. The third was definitely not the charm, however, as the Bearcats finished 8-16 and seventh place in the AAC last season.
Coach Clark-Heard and crew will look to right the ship this year, but after the transfer of reigning AAC Player of the Year Iimar’i Thomas (23.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg) to UCLA, the Bearcats will be searching for leaders to get Cincinnati back in the mix.
BASEMENT: TULSA, MEMPHIS, SMU
Head coach: Angie Nelp (1st season)
2020-21 record: 5-14 (4-13 in AAC)
Conference finish: 8th
Leading scorers and sisters Maya and Wyvette Mayberry return this year for first-year head coach Angie Nelp and the Golden Hurricane. Having solid returning scorers is always a good sign, but something bigger needs to change if Tulsa wants to start moving up the AAC women’s basketball ranks. Nelp’s head coaching experience is limited to high school, which could mean she brings a fresh outlook, but this more likely points to growing pains and a learning curve that will probably keep Tulsa from taking the next step this season.
Head coach: Katrina Merriweather (1st season)
2020-21 record: 4-15 (2-12 in AAC)
Conference finish: 10th
The loss of 6-foot-4 senior forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu dealt a giant blow to a Memphis team that struggled mightily last season. Fankam Mendjiadeu led the team in scoring and rebounding last year, averaging a double-double, and her loss leaves first-year head coach Katrina Merriweather essentially starting from scratch. The Tigers will have to play as a team and find several contributors to make up for the void left by Fankam Mendjiadeu.
Head coach: Toyelle Wilson (1st season)
2020-21 record: 0-6 (0-2 in AAC)
Conference finish: 11th
To say last season was a disaster for SMU would be an understatement. After feeling the wrath of COVID-19 and starting the season 0-6, the Mustangs elected to opt out of the rest of the campaign. Travis Mays is out as head coach after posting only one winning season in five years, and new head coach Toyelle Wilson has her work cut out for her. SMU’s roster stayed remarkably intact in the offseason, giving Coach Wilson something to build on, but it could be a while before SMU becomes competitive in AAC women’s basketball.
2021-22 AAC WOMEN’S BASKETBALL PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mia Davis – FORWARD – Senior – Temple
Mia Davis can flat out play. Averaging 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season, Davis is the heart and soul of the Temple Owls, and she was named First-Team All-AAC for her performance. The AAC is on notice as Davis was selected as the Preseason Conference Player of the Year this season, too.
Davis won’t light it up from the perimeter, but what she lacks in long-range shooting ability, she makes up for with a physical interior game, the ability to finish around the basket, and get to the free throw line. At 6-foot, Davis is not the biggest player on the court, but her drive and effort set her apart.
Elena Tsineke – GUARD – SOPHOMORE – South Florida
Arguably the best player on the best team in the conference, Elena Tsineke will look to continue to be a force for the Bulls. The Greece native excels at scoring from the perimeter and getting into the paint off the dribble. Shooting nearly 88 percent from the free-throw line, Tsineke finds ways to get the ball in the bucket.
Although she is an outstanding scorer, Tsineke can improve on her passing (1.8 apg) and her on-ball defense to become a more complete player. When all is said and done, though, expect Tsineke to snag another First-Team All-AAC spot again this year.
ASIA STRONG – FORWARD – SENIOR – WICHITA STATE
After earning Second-Team All-AAC honors last season with the Shockers, Asia Strong will aim to post an even more impressive encore performance. The 6-foot-2 senior from South Bend, Indiana, averaged 15.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per outing for Wichita State in her first year playing DI basketball. Such a breakout performance bodes well for Strong, and she has the ability to take her game to the next level this season.
Strong has the potential to score from the perimeter, but her size and physicality give her an edge on the interior. However, Strong may see tougher defense this year due to her first-year splash, so she may be challenged to get others involved a bit more as the season progresses.