Armed with depth, WVU women’s hoops is out to prove doubters wrong in 2021-22

Gold and Blue Nation

Mike Carey and West Virginia women’s basketball is back for another year in Morgantown as practice has tipped off and the season opener draws nearer.

With a new season comes a new set of challenges, and this year, Carey faces a unique one — extra players. In recent seasons (including 2020-21), the Mountaineers have faced the unfortunate trend of an injury- and transfer-shortened bench as the season wears on. This year, there are 15 players on the roster, and Carey is still wondering how they will all get a piece of the proverbial pie.

“I’m a typical coach, I complain because we don’t have numbers, now I’m complaining because we do have numbers,” Carey said. “I mean, that’s typical coach, but it’s all about keeping them happy, and everybody’s gotta have a role. If there’s ever year where everybody needs to know their role, it’s this year.”

Luckily, some of those roles are already defined. Junior forward Esmery Martinez, the leading rebounder from last season, is back, and with high expectations. The Dominican Republic native was stamped with a preseason All-Big 12 First Team nod ahead of the campaign as she looks to follow up her double-double average sophomore campaign.

Martinez was joined on the list by junior guard Kirsten Deans and senior forward Kari Niblack, who both received honorable mentions from the league. Madisen Smith, another regular starter who missed most of the end of the season with a leg injury, marks the fourth starter returning the lineup as well.

Still, Carey feels his team was slighted in the preseason polls, as they were selected to finish fourth in the Big 12.

“But that’s good, you’ve got a lot of new coaches in the league right now…so we’ll see what happens,” he said.

WVU was similarly picked to finish fifth in the 2020-21 preseason poll — but they bested the voters and finished second.

2021-22 season overview

  • 2020-21 record: 22-7 (13-5 Big 12, second in league)
  • Season finish: Fell as 4-seed in NCAA Tournament to No. 5 Georgia Tech, 73-56
  • Returning lead scorer: Kirsten “KK” Deans (19.5 PPG)
  • Returning lead rebounder: Esmery Martinez (11.6 RPG)
  • Returning lead assister: Kirsten “KK” Deans (3.6 APG)
  • Key losses: Kysre Gondrezick (WNBA Draft)
  • Returning starters: Martinez, Deans, Kari Niblack, Madisen Smith

Here’s how Coach Carey is looking to shake up his lineup this year:

Posts go deep

Led by Niblack and Martinez, the Mountaineers will have quite a bit of size on their roster — and most of their post players boast experience. Blessing Ejiofor, a regular contributor off the bench, is in her fifth year, while Carey added three transfers to help bolster the frontcourt.

On the surface, depth is far from an issue in this department this season — but how is Carey going to utilize them all? What will his lineups look like? Well, even he has yet to find out.

“There are times we’ll go big, we’ll go Esmery at the three and run like a triangle inside and that,” Carey said. “So we’re looking at different combinations … when we get into the scrimmage and when we get into some things, I’m going to use some different combinations just to see what’s the best combination for us.”

With three centers, five forwards and seven guards, Carey has a lot of different options to try out — which is important as he looks to replace his most important piece from a season ago.

Can they replace Kysre?

Kysre Gondrezick wowed Mountaineer fans in her final season in the Old Gold and Blue, helping the Mountaineer offense out with 19.5 of the team’s 72.3 points per game — helping the guard earn a No. 4 overall pick in the WNBA Draft to the Indiana Fever.

That’s a significant chunk of the team’s scoring output that needs to be replaced, and that chunk came from a unique player in the team’s recent history — one that can’t really be replaced, even if they bring back four starters.

“We cannot afford our guards that are returning…to try to make up Kysre’s scoring,” Carey said. “Now some of them will score a little bit more, but we don’t need one guard to make up the 20 points.”

Carey, of course, will look to his deep inside game to get a portion of those points back, but they still need to get some output from the backcourt. From that standpoint, Gondrezick made 64 three-pointers at a 36.4-percent clip — so Carey says filling that specific hole will be the key.

Deans is more than capable to bring some scoring from the three-point line. As the only other Mountaineer to take more than 100 three-pointers, she led the team with a 41.5-percent shooting percentage from deep. Jasmine Carson also showed some shooting prowess in her limited minutes, making 21 of her 56 three-pointers on the season. Additionally, Carey hopes to see a full season out of Madisen Smith, who missed most of March with a leg injury.

Scouting the schedule

The season tips off on Nov. 16 when the Mountaineers host Saint Francis. They take a pair of Florida trips for the St. Pete Showcase against Purdue, followed by a meeting with either Florida State or BYU from Nov. 25-27, then later, they head to the West Palm Beach Invitational to face South Florida and Michigan State on Dec. 20 and 21, respectively.

On Dec. 1, they face Kentucky in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in Lexington.

Big 12 play opens with the new year on Jan. 2 as WVU travels to Iowa State. The league home opener is slated for Jan. 8 against Kansas State.

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