4 questions for BYU women’s basketball heading into the 2022-23 season

It’s a new era for women’s hoops at BYU.

Much has changed since last season’s 26-4 finish and WCC regular season title. Following a first round exit in the NCAA tournament, head coach Jeff Judkins retired after more than two decades in Provo, four impact seniors graduated and two time defending conference player of the year Shaylee Gonzales transferred to Texas, leaving the program in surprisingly unfamiliar territory.

Now, Amber Whiting is at the helm of the Cougars for their WCC swan song, inheriting a young roster eager to maintain its status as a perennial league force. Here are four storylines to watch heading into the season.

What can we expect from Amber Whiting in year one?

It’s rare to go straight from coaching in high school to leading a Division-I program — especially without any prior collegiate coaching experience — but that’s exactly what Whiting did upon her hiring at BYU in May.

Whiting has been given a monster task in replacing Judkins, the reigning conference coach of the year and winningest coach in school history. Such a charge becomes even more challenging when factoring in the heavy loss of production from last year and current need to fill four new starting spots in the lineup, all while preparing for impending Big 12 membership.

As a true freshman in regards to college coaching experience, there are sure to be growing pains as Whiting settles into the job. Easing the pressure will be Whiting’s newly hired assistants Aaron Kallhoff and Morgan Bailey, who join associate head coach Lee Cummard on a strong staff that will make the transition between regimes smoother and help Whiting develop into the coach that BYU needs for years to come.

It will be interesting to see how Whiting adjusts her style to the college game, how she grows throughout her debut season and what kind of culture begins to develop within the program under her watch.

Can Lauren Gustin lead the way?

BYU’s lone returning starter is Gustin, a two time First Team All-WCC selection, 2021 All-American honorable mention and dominant post presence. The junior power forward has averaged 11 points and 12 boards per game over two seasons at BYU, shooting an efficient 50.7% from the field last year while serving as one of the nation’s most prolific rebounders.

Though always a valuable contributor, Gustin’s play was often overshadowed by her flashier teammates Gonzales, Paisley Harding and Tegan Graham, as the Cougars had a seemingly endless number of offensive weapons in their arsenal. Only Gustin remains today, and the Cougars will have to lean on her more than ever before. She has become the face of the program and will set the tone on both ends of the floor.

Whiting needs to determine how to get the absolute most out of Gustin on offense without BYU’s scheme becoming too predictable. Gustin will likely need to have the ball more frequently and in more diverse situations than before, all while setting more screens and upping her percentage from the free throw line. We may not know what BYU’s offense will look like just yet, but the more Gustin is involved and can take over games, the better.

Which players will make the jump into the starting five?

The Cougars don’t have any seniors on their roster, and no one aside from Gustin has ever started a game. It’s a bit frightening, but there is some definite excitement in an unproven group all competing to stick in the starting lineup.

Guard Kaylee Smiler is the most obvious candidate for a promotion, having appeared in 74 games off the bench over the past three seasons. Emma Calvert, Arielle Mackey-Williams and Nani Falatea were all key pieces of last year’s rotation, with Rose Bubakar showing flashes of promise as well in a handful of appearances. Additionally, Arizona State transfer Gabriela Bosquez headlines six roster newcomers, giving Whiting even more options for her main unit.

BYU’s starting five likely won’t be solidified until WCC play, giving Whiting a few weeks to tinker with various lineups and rotations to find the right fit for her personnel. It’s anyone’s guess as to what that may eventually look like, but there will be plenty of intrigue in watching its formation.

What will be the identity of this team?

Last year’s BYU squad was defined by unselfish, efficient offensive rhythm and chippy, hyperactive effort on defense, both largely due to the Cougars’ longstanding established core being so familiar with one another.

Such advanced chemistry isn’t possible for this year’s group. And that’s ok.

This team needs to figure out what it’s best at as soon as possible and then cling to that. Whiting needs to breed confidence for her Cougars. They need something to rally around.

Will this year’s team embrace an underdog mentality, or will it continue to wear a target on its back like the Judkins teams of the past? How will its energy affect its on-court results? Will the roster’s youth create chaos or prove too chaotic?

We’ll find out soon enough. The Cougars open their season with an exhibition against Westminster on Oct. 27.

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