LSU coach Kim Mulkey struck again in the transfer portal, and it’s a big grab: Former DePaul standout Aneesah Morrow told ESPN on Friday she’s headed to the Bayou, a move that, paired with the signing of Louisville transfer Hailey Van Lith, sent shockwaves throughout women’s college basketball.
Even before Morrow’s announcement, LSU had elevated to No. 1 in ESPN’s updated Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings for 2023-24 on Tuesday. Now with Morrow — one of the nation’s top scorers and rebounders the last two seasons — also on board, the Tigers have further strengthened their stronghold over the top spot while spurring early talk of the arrival of a college superteam and a potential championship repeat.
After winning the program’s first national title, LSU will take the court in November significantly more talented than we last saw it. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Angel Reese will anchor the group, joined by fellow returning starter Flau’jae Johnson. But surrounding them will be new additions Morrow and Van Lith, as well as the top-ranked recruiting class for 2023, headlined by guard Mikaylah Williams (No. 2 prospect per ESPN) and post Aalyah Del Rosario (No. 7).
What does Morrow’s commitment mean for the Tigers? How has the allowance of name, image and likeness (NIL) and the one-time transfer exception altered the landscape of the sport? And are we on the verge of a superteam era in women’s college basketball?
How does Morrow make LSU better? How do we expect her to fit in on court?
Philippou: Morrow arrives in Baton Rouge having averaged 23.8 points per game across two years at DePaul. Sure, she won’t be taking 20 shots per game like she did for the Blue Demons, but she’s an offensive force who is relentless on the glass. Between Reese, Van Lith, Morrow and even a freshman like Williams, LSU has so many more offensive playmakers than it did when it won the national championship a month ago.
Still, Mulkey will have to assess where exactly Morrow best fits on the floor. At 6-foot-1, Morrow would be undersized in the post in the SEC, and her best shot at making it in the WNBA would be for her to develop more perimeter skills. Morrow told ESPN she and Mulkey have already discussed how they can take advantage of her versatility and expand her game to play more on the perimeter. She showed growth in this regard from freshman to sophomore year (she shot over 200 3-pointers this past season, for example) and can build upon that even more once she gets to campus.
Voepel: There actually were a few rebounds left to grab this past season for other LSU players despite Reese averaging 15.4 per game. LaDazhia Williams averaged 6.0 RPG, and with her college career over, having Morrow as a replacement is perfect. Williams is 3 inches taller than Morrow, but Morrow is a rebound magnet. She averaged 12.2 RPG this past season and 13.8 as a freshman. It won’t be a surprise to see Reese and Morrow combine to outrebound entire teams by themselves.
Mulkey talked a lot about rebounding being the constant identity of the 2022-2023 Tigers. And while it turned out they did everything well enough to be national champions, the ability to limit opponents’ possessions and extend its own will be very important again for LSU.
How have Mulkey and LSU brought in all these big-time players from the portal?
Voepel: Go back to guard Chloe Jackson, who as a grad transfer went to Baylor in 2018 and was the Most Outstanding Player at the 2019 women’s Final Four. Her success helped fully convince Mulkey, still with the Bears then, that having a player even for one year was enough if the player was the right fit. It set the table for Mulkey to be ready to fully embrace the transfer portal. Then as soon as NIL rules officially changed in 2022 to allow student-athletes to profit, Mulkey — by then at LSU — put a longtime, valued staff member, Jennifer Roberts, in charge of managing NIL for Tigers women’s basketball.
Roberts, whose title is director of player personnel and influence, works with players on NIL opportunities and enhancing their brands. She led the way in LSU hitting the ground running regarding NIL. Reese’s decision last summer to come to LSU seemed primarily motivated by her sense that Mulkey would draw the best out of her. But it also quickly became apparent Reese and LSU could mutually benefit from her outgoing personality and NIL opportunities.
Winning the national championship while looking like they had so much fun doing it made the Tigers the “it” team to capture big-time transfers’ attention this spring. And LSU’s brand name across Louisiana and even nationwide has helped make NIL deals profitable for players in Baton Rouge. LSU has a lot to sell, and knows how to sell it.
Philippou: We haven’t heard directly from Van Lith about why she decided to transfer to LSU, but Morrow cited the way LSU embraces every aspect of who she is — from basketball to branding to her interests in fashion and entrepreneurship — in helping sell her on joining the Tigers. Morrow told ESPN Mulkey and the team have encouraged her to come out of her shell and showcase her personality, exactly what we saw from Reese & Co. during their run in Dallas, both from an NIL standpoint and beyond.
Morrow also mentioned loving the community support toward LSU athletics — something she didn’t exactly have during her two years at DePaul. LSU sports are akin to pro teams in Louisiana, not to mention the women’s basketball program — which led the nation in attendance last season — has even more momentum now coming off a national championship.
We touched on LSU’s chemistry last week after Van Lith committed. With three proven stars at the collegiate level now sharing the same court, are there enough balls to go around in Baton Rouge?
Voepel: It will work as long as they understand they all need to row in the same direction. There have been many star-filled teams in women’s hoops history — UConn and Tennessee led the way historically in that regard over much of the last 30 years — and the best of those teams shared the ball and the glory.
If winning the NCAA title truly is the goal, the players know they are playing for a coach who has won seven national championships (one AIAW, six NCAA) as a player, assistant or head coach. Mulkey knows how to win and how to manage big talent and big personalities.
To go back to the rowing analogy, you could have a boat full of the strongest people, but if they don’t work together, they not only won’t go as fast as they’re capable, they’ll probably capsize. LSU isn’t inventing the wheel by having multiple All-American-level players. But because the Tigers are bringing in two upper-class players who are used to carrying a big load to a team that already won a national championship, the Tigers are depending on all the players to show maturity and teamwork.
Philippou: Morrow acknowledged she sported gaudy stats and garnered impressive individual accolades during her time at DePaul, but that it essentially got her nowhere. The Blue Demons bowed out in the First Four of the NCAA tournament last year, and this past season finished with a losing record. It’s also worth noting that when it comes to Van Lith, her shouldering so much of the scoring load this season for Louisville didn’t seem ideal. Perhaps she’s fine with scaling things back, too.
Morrow said that playing alongside the best won’t just make her better, but allows the collective to achieve great things: In this case, ideally for the Tigers, championships.
If each player at LSU has this mentality — that the individual must sacrifice a bit for the broader goals — the Tigers can get where they want to be.
Could we see more superteams at the college level with the confluence of new NIL and transfer rules?
Voepel: Considering that eight programs — UConn, Tennessee, Stanford, Baylor, Notre Dame, South Carolina, USC and Louisiana Tech — account for 31 of the 41 NCAA titles in women’s hoops history, we’ve clearly had superteams aka superprograms. The difference now is in how they might form.
The one-time transfer exemption and allowing players to profit from their NIL are two seismic changes in college sports that specifically empowered student-athletes. The NCAA and its member institutions fought against both changes for many years before they finally happened at nearly the same time.
What most coaches say they feared — the equivalent of free agency in college — is now reality. The coaches who don’t adapt likely won’t coach much longer.
Players being able to transfer at least once without sitting out a year unlocked one large door that kept many players in place. NIL is providing the enticement for them to walk out that door. College sports has entered previously uncharted waters, and there’s no going back.
So where superteams used to be formed mostly by coaches recruiting high school players and taking an occasional transfer, now the players have a different kind of control in forming superteams via transferring more easily. There’s also the fact that transferring no longer carries any kind of stigma. In the past, transfers often were thought to some extent as players who had baggage from elsewhere. That mindset is gone.
The other recent factor in roster construction — the COVID-19 waiver allowing an extra year for any athlete who competed in the 2020-2021 season — won’t have a permanent impact like the one-time transfer waiver and NIL. The last class for which the COVID waiver applies is the rising seniors, so that will be over after the 2024-2025 season. That said, it was another thing that impacted this season’s outcome: The national championship game had three prominent fifth-year players in Williams and Alexis Morris for LSU and Monika Czinano for Iowa.
NIL money is still a new thing, and we will have to see how things like college collectives that help fund NIL opportunities grow and change. But the bottom line is that superteams are going to happen in ways they didn’t used to.
Philippou: As Voepel points out, it would be myopic to say there haven’t been superteams before in women’s college basketball (or in the WNBA for that matter. How about the Houston Comets and Minnesota Lynx, anyone?). The difference here is how they are forming: free agency or the transfer portal (i.e. the college equivalent).
Because the talent pool is so much deeper now than 10, 15, 20 years ago — producing the parity we’ve seen in recent years — it doesn’t seem as likely that one team or program, even one as stacked as LSU, could dominate like some of the superteams of old. South Carolina was on the cusp of an undefeated season but lost to Iowa last month, while LSU fell twice to the Gamecocks (who aren’t going anywhere). UConn has two former No. 1 recruits still on its roster and will be scary once they get healthy. UCLA, Ohio State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Louisville made intriguing additions in the portal. In other words, there are still multiple ways to successfully construct a roster, and it would be ill-advised to pre-emptively crown anyone the 2024 national champion.
Still, that doesn’t mean certain schools won’t try to adopt the blueprint Mulkey created. But how replicable is it? SEC branding, resources and fandom could just mean more, plus Hall of Fame coaches don’t grow on trees.