Arizona State women’s basketball enters the 2020-2021 season unranked in the preseason AP poll with a roster featuring six freshmen and one transfer.
Because of that, there is an expectation the Sun Devils will face a rebuilding year in Charli Turner Thorne’s 24th year as head coach.
But Turner Thorne has relied on freshmen contributions consistently, and with a recruiting class ranked No. 6 in the nation, there is no shortage of talent.
The Devils’ season begins this Wednesday, Nov. 25 at home against Stephen F. Austin. Here is the breakdown of the 87th Arizona State women’s basketball team.
Half of the roster is brand new, six of the seven newcomers are freshmen, and in quintessential Turner Thorne fashion, two of those six are from foreign countries.
Of the returning seven players, there is only one senior, Bre’Yanna Sanders, who averaged just 5.5 minutes per game last season.
This means the team is likely going to feature several different combinations of starting lineups in the opening games, with everyone who is able to play likely seeing at least some action as the coaching staff figures out who the regular contributors will be.
Turner Thorne has shown a willingness to throw freshmen into big situations early, such as in the Showdown on the Rez back in 2018 versus No. 3 Baylor, when now juniors Iris Mbulito, Taya Hanson and Jamie Loera all saw playing time in the fourth quarter of a close game. Mbulito and Hanson will be in the starting lineup come Wednesday night.
After Reili Richardson, Robbi Ryan, Kiara Russell all graduated and Sara Bejedi transferred to Florida State, the Devils needed a guard who at least had some collegiate playing experience to provide depth.
For that, the team has brought in junior college transfer Gabriela Bosquez from Blinn College and St. Edward’s University.
Turner Thorne mentioned freshman Jaddan Simmons’ name during PAC-12 media day as someone that will make an immediate impact for the Devils as well. Simmons, out of Wisconsin, was the all-time leading scorer in the Green Bay metro area.
She was also ranked as the 31st-best point guard at her position by ESPN. Simmons is a legacy for Sun Devil athletics. Her father, Jason Simmons, played on the 1996 Sun Devil football team that won the PAC-10 title and appeared in the 1997 Rose Bowl.
ASU will sorely miss Richardson, who thrived as a floor general and a facilitator, and this offense will look much different with Simmons, whose scoring ability exceeds that of Richardson.
Sydney Erikstrup will provide further depth at the guard spot. Ranked as the No. 32 shooting guard, she will provide the type of catch-and-shoot three-pointers off the bench that can sustain runs.
Another freshman Turner Thorne singled out as a potential early contributor was forward Katelyn Levings from Oklahoma City. Levings is a stretch-four who can take on the role that Jamie Ruden played last year, but is likely a better passer than Ruden was.
Recruiting outside of the continental United States has been a habit for the Devils in the last decade, and that trend continues with freshmen forwards Maggie Besselink, from Canada, and Imogen Greenslade, from Australia.
They will both see playing time as ASU needs frontcourt depth after losing center Ja’Tavia Tapley to graduation.
The other freshman, Keeli Burton-Oliver, will likely redshirt due to a pre-existing condition.
With so much roster turnover, the only returning starter is junior Jayde Van Hefte, who led the team in offensive rebounds last year.
Arizona State’s 2018 recruiting class came to Tempe with much fanfare. Two years later, this is their team now. Iris Mbulito, a junior from Spain, is my pick to show the most improvement from last season.
For the past two seasons, she has shown flashes of the player she can become, with her ceiling being one of the best players in the Pac-12.
Mbulito is athletic and quick offensively, not a particularly good shooter, but very talented at using her first step to get past defenders and to the rim.
Defensively, she will be the anchor if she uses her athleticism and defensive intelligence, similar to the way Luguentz Dort did when he was a Sun Devil.
Taya Hanson has not yet lived up to the lofty expectations placed on her as an incoming freshman in 2018.
Last year, she shot only 29 percent on 107 three-point attempts. Now, with no Ryan, Richardson or Kiara Russell, those numbers have to go up for Hanson if the Devils want to win games this year.
She has all the tools, and it seems as if she is always on the cusp of breaking out any game with a blitz of three-pointers, it just hasn’t happened yet.
Eboni Walker played in every game last season as a freshman. She led the team in field goal percentage and ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding.
Sydnei Caldwell did not play much last year, but did have nice performances against Air Force and Middle Tennessee.
Junior guard Jamie Loera has battled injuries her entire Sun Devil career, but by all accounts, she is finally healthy. During her abbreviated freshman year, she led the team in three-point shooting. She can also create scoring opportunities off the dribble.
Sanders has mostly played as a reserve during her time in Tempe, but as the only senior on the roster, it will be interesting to see if her minutes go up early in the season after three years spent with Turner Thorne.
Five home games will open the season, starting this Wednesday against Stephen F. Austin, followed by two games versus VCU and St. Mary’s. That’s it. That’s the non-conference schedule.
ASU will get just three games to sort out their relatively untested roster before opening play against the toughest conference in America.
December 4th at home against USC is a reminder that last time the two met in Tempe, it was a triple-overtime victory for the Devils, which was also the 500th win of Turner Thorne’s career.
Then, the first ranked opponent, the No. 9 UCLA Bruins and Michaela Onyenwere, who averaged just under 19 points per game last season. That game is followed by the first road trip of the season.
First, against arch-rival and No. 7 ranked Arizona Wildcats, led by Pac-12 player of the year contender Aari McDonald. Then two stops in Utah and Colorado. If ASU wants a shot at the postseason, those two games will be as close to must-win as it gets.
After Utah and Colorado, it’s back home to face the Bay Area teams in Cal and No. 2 Stanford on January 1st and January 3rd.
Cal was the team that knocked ASU out of the Pac-12 tournament back in March. By that game, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer will be the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history.
A quick stop in Seattle to face Washington followed by a game on January 15th, another matchup against an expected ranked opponent in No. 18 Oregon State. Two days later, No. 10 Oregon.
Then, the schedule turns over. ASU will play all the Pac-12 opponents over again, with Washington State joining the schedule.
Two games at home against the Beavers and the Ducks on February 5th and February 7th. Last year, ASU upset both Oregon teams at home when the Ducks were ranked No. 2 and the Beavers were ranked No. 3.
The last five games of the season are two at home against the Washington schools. Then, a trip to northern California, and then back home a week later to finish the regular season at home against Arizona.
Arizona State women’s basketball is currently on the best run of success in program history. They have not missed the NCAA Tournament the last six times it was held.
Since a losing season in 2012-2013, the team has not won less than 20 games and has finished no lower than 6th in the Pac-12 standings.
But Turner Thorne has arguably not had a tougher coaching task since her return from a personal hiatus in 2011 than this season. It is impossible to overlook the fact that this roster has so much inexperience, and the team won’t win 20 games this year simply because there are only 22 games to be played.
But what is most important for Turner Thorne and her Sun Devils is that they extend their postseason streak to seven. So let’s figure out how they do that.
By my estimation, the winner of the Pac-12 conference will win around 20 games this season. With the strength at the top of the conference, it’s unlikely that any team goes 22-0.
ASU begins this season sixth in the PAC-12 conference power rankings. In order to make the NCAA Tournament, that’s where they will have to finish.
Recent history has shown a top-six finish in conference and a moderate to good performance in the conference tournament will lock ASU in to the NCAA Tournament.
That means ASU will have to fend off the bottom six in the Pac-12, and go undefeated through non-conference.
With each loss to teams like Cal, Washington, Washington State, Utah, Colorado, and USC, there must be a win against Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA to counter.
If they hit UCLA at 4-0, they’re on pace. Then, likely two losses against the Bruins and Arizona.
The road trip to Utah and Colorado certainly scares me, and the Devils could leave that trip 1-1, which leaves them at 5-3.
At home against Cal will be a win, but Stanford is too experienced and talented for these Devils right now, 6-4. Let’s count at Washington as a win, and then comes likely two straight losses at home against Oregon State and Oregon, 7-6.
A home series against Colorado and Utah gives them two wins and a record of 9-6. Then, back on the road to face the schools from Los Angeles, where they lose to USC but get one back by upsetting a UCLA team that is looking ahead to Arizona. 10-8.
ASU is simply just not going to beat Oregon and Oregon State this year, and after their early February road trip to the state they will leave at .500.
That means home games against Washington and Washington State are must wins, if they accomplish that they’re 12-10 heading to northern California, where they will lose to Stanford and defeat Cal. 13-11.
That leaves one final game against Arizona. At home. I’m going to call this a win because ASU just won’t allow themselves to be swept by Arizona this year.
Final record: 14-11, NCAA Tournament berth for a seventh-straight time.