WCC women’s basketball has lately been dominated by two storied programs: BYU and Gonzaga. The Zags, who have won 16 of the last 17 regular season conference championships, play second fiddle to BYU this year, though.
The Cougars return almost everyone from a team that fared well in the NCAA Tournament, while Gonzaga lost nearly 50 percent of its scoring to graduation. Simply put, it’s BYU head coach Jeff Judkins’ conference to lose.
Speaking of losses, I don’t think any team makes it through the regular season unscathed as San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland all have enough talent to push the top-two teams to their limits, especially if they play perfect games.
WCC Women’s Basketball Preview 2021-22
Favorites: BYU, Gonzaga
Head coach: Jeff Judkins (21st season)
2020-21 record: 19-6 (13-3 in WCC)
Conference finish: 2nd
Jeff Judkins, the 2021 WCC Coach of the Year, enters his 21st season as the league’s preseason favorite.
Last year, he helped lead the Cougars to a 19-6 record, narrowly losing to Gonzaga in the conference tournament final. This year, BYU returns nearly every player from 2020-21, a team full of experience that should benefit from a strong NCAA performance (lost in second round to Arizona).
The team is led by a host of players, including but not limited to: Shaylee Gonzales, Lauren Gustin, and Paisley Harding. Expect to see this team as regular season champions with one loss to either Gonzaga or San Diego. ESPN has the Cougars tabbed as a possible tournament No. 7 seed in its way-too-early 2021-22 bracket.
Head coach: Lisa Fortier (8th season)
2020-21 record: 23-4 (16-1 in WCC)
Conference finish: 1st
With the depth in college basketball this season, it appears that the only surefire way into the NCAA Tournament is to win your conference. Of all the teams in the WCC, the Zags have the best chance at beating preseason favorite BYU, something they’ve been able to accomplish in seasons past (they beat BYU on a buzzer beater in the WCC Tournament Final last season).
A No. 5 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga lost some key players to graduation – Jill Townsend, Jenn Wirth, and LeeAnne Wirth – who combined for nearly 1,000 points and 50 percent of the offense. Look for 2021 Sixth Women of the Year and 2021-22 Preseason All-ACC selection Melody Kempton to step up big this year.
Contenders: San Diego, San Francisco, Portland
Head coach: Cindy Fisher (17th season)
2020-21 record: 12-8 (9-5 in WCC)
Conference finish: 3rd
Under head coach Cindy Fisher, the Toreros have made it to the conference title game twice in the last four years. San Diego returns all five starters from a year ago, including Preseason All-Conference selections Myah Pace and Jordyn Edwards. Look for that pair to lead the team in scoring as they combined for more than 22 points per game last season.
If anyone other than Gonzaga and BYU has a chance to contend for the WCC women’s basketball title, it’s San Diego.
Head coach: Molly Goodenbour (6th season)
2020-21 record: 16-10 (10-7 in WCC)
Conference finish: 4th
Head coach Molly Goodenbour has helped the Dons increase their presence in the WCC each year, and at a preseason rank of fourth in the league, expectations are higher than ever.
The team returns the extremely talented freshman guard Ioanna Krimili. She was the conference’s Freshman of the Year last season, connecting on 97 three pointers and shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Head coach: Michael Meek (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 14-13 (9-8 in WCC)
Conference finish: 6th
Portland is a team on the rise. Head coach Michael Meek shocked the entire conference when his preseason No. 10 team in the league won the 2020 WCC Tournament before COVID-19 ended the campaign early. The 2020-21 team performed well, too, despite late starts and an unclear situation.
This version of the Pilots will look to build on the successes of years prior and plant Portland firmly atop the WCC women’s basketball hierarchy. Portland will be led by All-Conference players and Preseason All-Conference selections Haylee Andrews and Alex Fowler.
Stuck in Purgatory: Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s
Head coach: Bill Carr (6th season)
2020-21 record: 14-11 (9-8 in WCC)
Conference finish: 5th
In a conference that boasts a ton of upperclassmen talent, it’s hard to be one of the few young teams. While the Broncos do have some solid talent returning in leading scorer Lindsey VanAllen (13 ppg) and Merle Wiehl (11.6 ppg), their primary rotation is projected to include two freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior alongside seniors Wiehl and VanAllen.
Wiehl is an experienced leader, though. The redshirt senior was selected to the WCC Preseason All-Conference Team and should light it up in 2021-22. But will there be enough around her for Santa Clara to contend?
Head coach: Paul Thomas (16th season)
2020-21 record: 7-19 (4-14 in WCC)
Conference finish: 8th
Saint Mary’s returns its top six scorers from a season ago – Taycee Wedin, Madeline Holland, Jade Kirisome, Ellie Croco, Brianna Simonich, and Tayla Dalton – and for this reason alone, I think the Gaels are a sleeping giant. The preseason No. 7 pick in the conference is returning talent and the offense needed to compete.
But the question is, does it have the defense? The offense averaged a respectable 62.8 points per game but allowed 71.5 per outing. If Saint Mary’s works out its defensive issues, then it could be looking at a much different situation. But if it can’t tighten up the defense, but contending won’t happen.
Basement: Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, Pacific
Head coach: Aarika Hughes (1st season)
2020-21 record: 7-19 (4-14 in WCC)
Conference finish: 9th
The 2021-22 season spells a new coach and fresh start for the Lions. The team returns top point scorer Ariel Johnson and top rebounder Khari Clark, both of whom will be relied upon heavily to keep Loyola Marymount competitive.
LMU also welcomes four transfers and three freshmen, and like most teams with this much new blood in the program, it will take time to build cohesion. Expect the Lions to start slow but finish strong, but not strong enough to escape the lower portion of the league. It’ll take a little longer than one campaign for head coach Aarika Hughes to turn it around.
Head coach: Kristen Dowling (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 5-18 (2-16 in WCC)
Conference finish: 10th
Despite a 2-16 conference record, head coach Kristen Dowling had the Waves competitive in many of their WCC games, losing by an average of just about nine points per game. The loss of Monique Andriuolo will hurt (9.4 ppg), but Pepperdine does bring back three of its top-four scorers in Malia Bambrick, Cheyenne Givens, and Jayla Ruffus-Milner.
The questions for the Waves are who will step up to help Bambrick, who averaged 35 minutes per game in 2020-21, and can the team tighten up defensively after allowing 67.6 points per contest while losing the turnover margin 4.4. Even though Pepperdine often kept it close last season, there’s still a lot of room to grow before escaping the WCC women’s basketball basement.
Head coach: Bradley Davis (7th season)
2020-21 record: 12-11 (9-9 in WCC)
Conference finish: 7th
Pacific head coach Bradley Davis said it best:
“I think Pacific being picked tenth is a reflection of us graduating arguably the best and most productive player in the WCC over the last two years, one of the best forwards in the country and an experienced senior point guard,” he explained. “We are definitely an unknown, and in sports it’s almost impossible to quantify unknowns.”
Look for Davis and the Tigers to prove the other conference coaches wrong and finish anywhere but tenth, but with the unknowns, I still have them in my basement heading into the campaign.
2021-22 WCC Women’s Basketball Players to Watch
Shaylee Gonzales – Guard – Sophomore – BYU
Shaylee Gonzales was named as one of the 25 players on the preseason watchlist for the 2022 Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year Award. She was the 2021 WCC Co-Player of the Year. Last season, she led the Cougars with 17.8 points per night.
If all goes as planned, Gonzales will repeat as the WCC Player of the Year and lead BYU on a deep run in March.
Ioanna Krimili – Guard – Sophomore – San Francisco
The former 2021 Newcomer of the Year led her team and the conference in points, points per game, and minutes last season as a freshman.
Now, Ioanna Krimili is a sophomore and looking like a force to be reckoned with. She will look to lead the Dons to their best finish in years, and if she carries enough of the load, it’s possible her efforts could be huge in securing USF’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016.
Alex Fowler – Forward – Junior – Portland
Name the WCC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 2020, Alex Fowler is poised for a big junior campaign.
Her first two seasons on The Bluff were arguably as good as any other player who has come through the program. She became the fastest Pilot to break the 1,000 career points mark last year after averaging 16.8 points per game, plus nabbed 7.4 rebounds per night. Fowler was atop WCC women’s basketball in field-goal percentage at 54.8 percent as well.
She should do some big things again in 2021-22, and she will play a big role in how Portland’s season shakes out.