LSU’s Kim Mulkey made waves in the offseason for the second consecutive year by picking up a program-changing transfer. The four-time NCAA championship coach turned heads again Thursday, earning a commitment from former Louisville all-ACC guard Hailey Van Lith, whose decision to enter the portal was one of the most shocking moves of the one-time transfer era.
Earlier this month, Angel Reese — a transfer from Maryland — propelled the Tigers to their first Final Four since 2008, where she won most outstanding player and helped LSU win its first national title.
But standout point guard Alexis Morris is gone (selected by the Connecticut Sun in the second round of the 2023 WNBA draft), as are starters LaDazhia Williams (drafted No. 17 by the Indiana Fever) and Jasmine Carson. Now the Tigers have reloaded, not just with Van Lith — the No. 1 player in ESPN’s transfer rankings — and Reese, but also the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, which features McDonald’s All-Americans Mikaylah Williams and Aalyah del Rosario.
And LSU might not be done yet, as DePaul transfer Aneesah Morrow — one of the country’s top scorers over the past two seasons and No. 2 in ESPN’s transfer rankings — will visit Baton Rouge this weekend.
ESPN’s Charlie Creme, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel assess what Van Lith’s decision means for LSU on court and chemistry-wise, as well as for the rest of the national landscape, going into the 2023-24 season.
How, and where, does Van Lith slide into the LSU backcourt?
Charlie Creme: Let’s be clear: Van Lith is not a point guard. She has played off the ball the majority of her career. She’s a scorer, a shot-seeker and has a big-game mentality. But Van Lith is not a facilitator who sets up teammates on a regular basis. That isn’t her strength. She has had more turnovers than assists in three college seasons.
The future pro prospects of the 5-foot-7 Van Lith might rest with her developing those skills, and with Morris gone, LSU might provide her that opportunity. What would be best for the Tigers, however, is to have Van Lith to continue to play the 2-guard and turn over the point to Kateri Poole on a full-time basis, or possibly to incoming freshman Angelica Velez. Better yet, if they could find a point guard who plays like Mulkey did at Louisiana Tech, LSU will have found the ideal situation.
Alexa Philippou: LSU needed firepower in the backcourt to compensate for the loss of Morris. But it’ll be interesting to see exactly where and how Mulkey sees Van Lith fitting in because of the circumstances Charlie expounded upon. One additional factor to consider is how big of an impact 6-foot-0 freshman guard Williams (the No. 2 player in the country per HoopGurlz) is ready to make in her debut season in Baton Rouge. If she’s poised to have a significant role on the floor, she could appear on the perimeter alongside reigning SEC freshman of the year Flau’jae Johnson (also a returning starter) and Van Lith.
Whether Mulkey would look to Williams to help solve the point guard quandary versus how much responsibility she’ll challenge Van Lith or others to step up remains to be seen.
M.A. Voepel: It was amusing how quickly folks on social media made the French braid connection between Mulkey the player in the 1980s and Van Lith now. It’s almost like this pairing of coach and player was meant to happen. But Mulkey was, as Charlie said, a pass-first player in college.
We can’t expect Van Lith will radically change her game, nor should she. But Mulkey might be able to help Van Lith become a bit more of a distributor.
How does Van Lith make LSU better?
Hailey Van Lith (and her trademark braids) are headed to LSU, where she’ll play for Kim Mulkey and the NCAA champion Tigers. Alika Jenner/Getty Images
Philippou: This LSU team is poised to emerge as more talented than last year’s — yes, because of Van Lith’s addition, but also because of the freshmen who are coming in. Setting aside 100-point games against weak nonconference opponents, the Tigers stood out more defensively than offensively (a big part of how they got to Dallas). But with Van Lith and a player like Williams in tow, if everyone can figure out their roles, the Tigers will have more consistent offensive players than much of 2022-23, which takes some pressure off Reese and makes them tougher to beat. Van Lith’s ability to come up clutch in big moments is one of her strong suits, and every team will gladly take a player who fully understands the moment and still manages to deliver.
Still, Van Lith’s shooting efficiency (particularly on 3-pointers) and turnover-prone tendencies (especially if she’s handling the ball more) could stand to improve for LSU to truly be at its best.
Creme: Adding a talent like Van Lith has to make the Tigers better. The biggest gap for next year’s team vs. the national title squad was going to be the loss of Morris. That has now been filled both from a production and mentality standpoint. Like Morris, Van Lith is willing to take a big shot and is not afraid of big moments. Repeating as champs will require plenty of that.
If Johnson makes that expected next step and LSU finds another point guard, the Tigers will have one of the best wing duos in the country. With Reese, who is a good passer, anchoring the paint, defenses will have tough choices to make.
Voepel: Van Lith can play hero ball when she needs to and there’s no better example than how she saved Louisville from an upset by Drake in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament. Of course, she won’t need to do that often with all of LSU’s talent. However, keeping with the theme of her stepping into Morris’ shoes, there were times this season when Morris was the key player for LSU. Van Lith has that same ability and mindset.
Despite a slew of newcomers and strong personalities, LSU never fell victim to chemistry issues and instead meshed well enough to win an NCAA title. How might Van Lith’s competitive spirit impact the on- and off-court dynamics?
Voepel: At the Greenville Regional, Mulkey said that some people had mentioned to her that she was dealing with a team of strong personalities. And she said she told them, “Do you know me?”
To say the least, Mulkey doesn’t worry about strong personalities — because no one is going to have a stronger one than her. Still, this is quite a chemistry experiment and it’s coming in this new era of college sports with NIL money available and the one-time transfer waiver.
We’re in different waters now. But if anyone has proved time and again that she can adapt while still staying fundamentally old-school, it’s Mulkey.
Scary hours for LSU 😱 pic.twitter.com/hOk8MspdUd
— espnW (@espnW) April 27, 2023
Creme: The question of LSU’s chemistry could be the most discussed topic in women’s college basketball to start the season. Reese mostly had role players around her last season. Even Morris still felt like she had something to prove. That isn’t the case now. Van Lith has proved plenty and has her own identity. There aren’t many coaches better at handling stars and integrating talent than Mulkey. The chemistry might not work perfectly from the start of the season, but when the games get more meaningful, my guess is everything will be just fine in Baton Rouge.
Philippou: I first want to beg for someone, anyone, to send cameras to Baton Rouge ASAP to capture everything that’s about to go down as some of the sport’s most vibrant personalities, competitive figures and biggest trash-talkers join forces as part of one team. Plan B can be to mic up someone from LSU during every game. And is it too late to get an LSU-Iowa rematch in nonconference play on the books?
Big personalities can coexist in sports when people put any differences or potential friction aside for the betterment of a single goal: winning. That seemed to work for the Tigers last season and given how competitive and winning-oriented we know Van Lith to be, it’s reasonable to expect the approach would remain the same. Still, with the incorporation of multiple star-studded newcomers, the chemistry question is relevant as we wait and see how this all comes together on the floor. But as Charlie said, no one is more equipped to make it work than Mulkey.
How similar or different could the identity and of this new-look LSU team be from last year?
Creme: A thorough breakdown of LSU’s championship season reveals just how against-the-norm it was. Teams with nine new players don’t typically win titles. Teams that play nonconference schedules that soft usually get burned in an NCAA tournament setting. Teams that hit 70 points just once before the Final Four aren’t likely to score over 100 in the national championship game. It was an unusual run and, while not underdogs, LSU wasn’t a heavy favorite, either. That’s going to be completely different next season. With the addition of Van Lith, and especially if Morrow follows, no one would see a title next year as unusual. That kind of talent should make a Final Four. The Tigers will be the hunted in 2024.
Philippou: Charlie is right: LSU’s run was unexpected on so many levels. Mulkey even talked about feeding the monster too early. But she has thrown that all to the wayside by winning a national championship in Year 2 and following it up by bringing in the top recruiting class, Van Lith and also having a shot at Morrow. Whether you consider their tournament run a fluke, Final Fours and national championships are the new standard in Baton Rouge.
The questions on how this will look on the floor become even more complex if Morrow enters into the fold. Reese (15.6 field goal attempts per game), Van Lith (16.8 FGA) and Morrow (24.3 FGA) all took a lot of shots last year. But as of now the offense will likely run through Reese and Van Lith (vs. Reese and Morris last year).
The addition of Van Lith, who can be a polarizing figure, has solidified LSU — a similarly polarizing program — as the team you love or love to hate.
Voepel: Two things. First, when LSU faced South Carolina, the team that was the best in the country all season, the Tigers lost by 24 and on that day were no match for the Gamecocks.
Second, then pretty much everything that needed to go LSU’s way in the NCAA tournament, did. Indiana, the No. 1 seed in its regional, was upset in the second round. The No. 2 seed in Greenville, Utah, could have won its Sweet 16 matchup but for two key misses at the free throw line late in the game. Miami, the No. 9 seed that had upset Indiana, ran out of gas in the Elite Eight against LSU. And then in the national semifinals, Iowa knocked off previously unbeaten South Carolina.
This might sound like we’re disparaging the Tigers’ title, but it’s not that. Mulkey herself has often said you need a little good fortune along with great play to win a national championship, and LSU got both.
Next season, though, the Tigers will come in with more pressure as not just one of the primary favorites, but a team that will be in the spotlight the entire time.
That was the case in 2012-2013 for Mulkey’s defending national champion Baylor team, which was upset in the Sweet 16. Even with so much momentum and the infusion of talent, the Tigers still have to make it happen.
Is LSU the favorite to start 2023-24?
Philippou: Caesars Sportsbook has UConn and LSU as co-favorites (+400) after Van Lith’s commitment, which makes sense. Deeming LSU as the favorite to start 2023-24 is a respectable choice since the Tigers are the reigning champs, return their best player in Reese, picked up the top transfer on the market in Van Lith and bring in the No. 1 recruiting class. If the Tigers also manage to snag Morrow, there will be basketball questions to parse through, but based on pure talent on paper, it might be difficult to consider anyone else.
That said, UConn is a valid choice, given it’s expected to churn out a lineup featuring 2020-21 national player of the year Paige Bueckers, fellow former No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd and third-team All-American Aaliyah Edwards. And after two years of health issues, plus last month’s shocking and disappointing loss in the Sweet 16, the Huskies will be determined to show that the storied Huskies aren’t on a downswing.
Creme: Like Alexa, I still see a healthy UConn as a strong national title favorite. But I have to give LSU a slight edge. I wonder about chemistry and how the shot distribution will work in Baton Rouge. Sometimes two alphas who are used to leading can have difficulty adjusting to slightly different roles, both on the court and in the locker room. Talent typically wins out, though. And LSU has a bunch of it, and a coach who knows how to use it.
Voepel: I give the edge to LSU for now. Let’s see how the Tigers respond to being the targeted team. It should be fascinating to watch.