May 21, 2024

The reigning national champion LSU Tigers were the talk of the offseason after a summer that spurred predictions they’d become women’s basketball’s next superteam. Coach Kim Mulkey brought in two star players from the transfer portal — Hailey Van Lith and Aneesah Morrow — to join forces with Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese and a top-ranked recruiting class, earning the Tigers the preseason No. 1 ranking.

But the early goings in Baton Rouge have featured mixed results. LSU became the first national champion to drop its season opener since 1995, losing to then-No. 20 Colorado 92-78 on the first day of the 2023-24 season. The Tigers have produced 100-plus points and won by at least 30 in each game since — against Queens, Mississippi Valley State and Kent State — but their deficiencies more than their dominance have been the story.

They led by just two at halftime Tuesday against Kent State, which hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament in over 20 years, and even trailed early in the third quarter before going on a huge second-half run to win comfortably, largely fueled by the exceptional shooting of freshman Mikaylah Williams.

Mulkey has been most concerned with LSU’s defense, but also seems to be working through some personnel issues. Aside from early difficulties stemming from lack of chemistry and playing time together, Reese was benched for the second half of the Kent State game, and Kateri Poole, who started down the stretch of LSU’s championship run, did not play the entire game. Mulkey chalked up the absences to a “coach’s decision.”

Ahead of LSU’s fifth game of the season — Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Southeastern Louisiana, which gave the Tigers trouble last year, we break down what we’ve learned so far about the Tigers: the good and the bad, the promising and the potentially concerning.

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Sa’Myah Smith finishes through contact

Sa’Myah Smith finishes through contact, 11/14/2023

The bright spots: Williams is a star, Sa’Myah Smith is most improved

For as much as Reese, Van Lith and Morrow headline this team, LSU’s most consistent, standout players so far have been others: Williams and sophomore forward Sa’Myah Smith, who are No. 2 and No. 3 in playing time behind Van Lith.

Smith contributed to LSU’s national championship run last season, averaging 4.6 points and 4.0 rebounds off the bench, but she has blossomed after staying in Baton Rouge over the summer to work on her body and game. The results are showing, as she’s averaging 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds (second on the team behind Reese) while being a steady force down low, helping make up for the graduation loss of center LaDazhia Williams. Mulkey liked what she saw from Smith so much that she has inserted her into the starting lineup since the Colorado game.

Williams, who was espnW’s No. 2 recruit in the 2023 class, is one of the many freshmen nationwide who’ve turned heads this season. The Louisiana native showed poise and an ability to knock down shots in the Colorado loss and further flaunted her three-level shot-making abilities against Kent State, when she went 15-for-20 from the field for 42 points. With her team-high 22.0 points per game (on 62.3% shooting), she has arguably established herself as the most talented player on LSU’s roster, even amid some expected freshman moments. It helps that she can knock down 3-pointers, making 12 of the Tigers’ 20 3s through four games; no other LSU player has made more than two 3s.

Williams’ instant impact and Smith’s offseason growth will help the Tigers in the short and long term as they work to put the pieces together, new and old.

Everything starts and ends with defense

Mulkey’s teams at Baylor and LSU have prided themselves on defense and rebounding, areas she’s still looking to shore up this season. Against the Buffaloes, Jaylyn Sherrod‘s ability to penetrate the paint helped open things up for Colorado’s perimeter shooters, while the Tigers’ interior defense also struggled, allowing 42 paint points. In the games since — against weak nonconference opponents — 3-point defense has continued to hurt LSU, as two of the three teams they’ve played after the opener shot north of 40% from the 3-point arc; Kent State finished 14-for-33.

As a point of comparison, LSU gave up more than 10 3s three times in all of last season, and never allowed an opponent to score 90 points. If Kent State can put up 79, what’ll happen when the Tigers face South Carolina, which has scored 100-plus in each game to date?

To make up for individual deficiencies on the defensive end, you need good team defense, which requires chemistry, trust and communication — factors that, theoretically, should improve over the course of a season, especially with a group of new players. And Mulkey has relented it’ll take some time for the transfers and freshmen to get used to how she wants them to defend.

Still, Mulkey has pointed to the Tigers’ defensive miscues often as a product of lack of energy or effort, particularly demanding more from her returners. That needs to be corrected promptly to build championship habits for when it matters most. Whether this team can develop a stronger defensive identity — as individuals and as a collective — will impact LSU’s ceiling and Final Four potential.

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Angel Reese can’t be stopped on this LSU bucket

Angel Reese grabs her own miss multiple times and finishes off the layup for LSU.

Personnel questions

Basketball fans were eagerly awaiting to see how the influx of talent would mesh in Baton Rouge this year. Fuel was added to the fire this week when several recent alumni posted cryptic tweets referencing intra-program drama. When asked about it Thursday, Mulkey said she doesn’t pay attention to what happens on social media and is just focused on coaching.

As far as what’s happening on the hardwood, Mulkey hasn’t hesitated to switch up the starting lineup or even bench players. Morrow has come off the bench the past three games as the DePaul transfer finds her rhythm, and Last-Tear Poa has started the past two games as Flau’jae Johnson dealt with the flu. Most glaring was Mulkey’s decision to bench Reese for the second half of the Kent State game and Poole for the entirety of it.

While Mulkey didn’t expand on her rationale, she’d previously said disappointment from the Colorado game was rooted in “some individual players who I thought would be tougher, have a little fight and some leadership about them,” emphasizing that the returners are responsible for setting a better tone when it comes to playing with effort, energy, heart and fight. Even after LSU beat Queens, Mulkey said she’d been “challenging some of them like they’ve never been challenged in their life.” After that game, Reese said she knew she needed to do better on defense especially.

Perhaps it was similar themes that led to Reese being benched against Kent State. Either way, Mulkey made a statement in demanding more from her Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Because more so than even last year, when fifth-year senior point guard Alexis Morris was still around and served as a major team leader, the buck stops with Reese this season.

Reese likely won’t be the last player challenged by Mulkey on this work-in-progress, but how a player of her stature and caliber responds will be telling in whether the Tigers can keep their championship aspirations on track.

The first two weeks of the season have had their ups and downs, but it’s premature to write LSU’s obituary in November. Incorporating new players into new roles and into a new system was always likely to have growing pains. Mulkey said she knows her team can put it all together; she just doesn’t know exactly when.

This much is clear: All eyes will be on the Bayou in the coming months as LSU looks to overcome its early-season hiccups and keep its sights set on hanging another banner in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.


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Hannah Hidalgo rips the ball away from a defender and scores for Notre Dame

Hannah Hidalgo gets another steal and scores to increase Notre Dame’s lead.

What to watch this weekend

Check out Charlie Creme’s viewer’s guide for a complete look at the must-see Thanksgiving holiday tournament games.

2:30 p.m. ET Friday, Pac-12 Network

Among the Pac-12 teams facing high expectations this season, UCLA returns Charisma Osborne, boasts an exciting sophomore class and brought in former No. 1 recruit Lauren Betts from Stanford via the transfer portal. Cori Close’s squad has scored at least 90 points in each of its games this season, with Betts standing out early by converting 24 of 33 field goal attempts (72.7%). The Bruins’ nonconference schedule only gets more challenging with the likes of UConn, Florida State and Ohio State ahead.

But Princeton — which is coming off consecutive NCAA tournament second-round appearances and gave Utah a tough game in March — is not a team to overlook. Picked to finish first in the conference once more, the Tigers are led by reigning Ivy League player of the year Kaitlyn Chen, rookie of the year Madison St. Rose and co-defensive player of the year Ellie Mitchell.

1 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC

Notre Dame hasn’t had the smoothest start to the season. Olivia Miles remains out indefinitely with the knee injury she suffered at the end of February. The Irish got thrashed by South Carolina in Paris 100-71. And now they await word on the severity of an injury Sonia Citron suffered Wednesday when a teammate accidentally fell into her in the second half of their game versus Northwestern. Citron had to be helped off the court and did not return to floor.

A win over a good Illinois team, as well as the continued stellar play from freshman Hannah Hidalgo, in the Shamrock Classic in Washington, D.C., could help boost morale. Hidalgo is averaging 26.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 7.0 steals across the Irish’s first three games. The Illini, meanwhile, fell out of the rankings following a loss to Marquette, but were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten and return unanimous first-team all-Big Ten guard Makira Cook.

3 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC

Stanford might have lost Haley Jones to the WNBA, but they’ve been on a roll to begin the 2023-24 campaign, most impressively thrashing then-No. 9 Indiana by 32 points at Maples Pavilion. Cameron Brink — who had 20 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks and stellar defense on Mackenzie Holmes that evening — said after the game she hopes the performance prompts people to “take us a little more seriously now” (the Cardinal were ranked preseason No. 15 before jumping nine spots this week). Kiki Iriafen seems like she has made a meaningful jump as a junior, averaging 18.7 points (on 73.5% shooting) and 9.3 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game.

Duke, which was picked to finish seventh in the ACC preseason poll, has stumbled as of late, falling to Davidson 69-62 on Thursday for its first loss of the 2023-24 campaign. The game prior they narrowly escaped WNIT runner-up Columbia on Tuesday before coming away with a four-point win.

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