Welcome to the Starting Five, your rundown of the key stories in #HLWBB from the past…however long it took to come up with five stories since the previous Starting Five.
1. Here’s the T
Against all odds (as you know if you read these posts), we recently had some summer news that didn’t involve a staff change, player movement or a schedule leak: on Monday, the NCAA announced that it has created a new women’s postseason tournament, called the Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT).
There are certainly more questions than answers at this point – including anything related to the selection process and playing sites – but the WBIT will involve a 32-team field, meaning that the NCAA-funded tournaments in women’s and men’s basketball will parallel each other (68 in each NCAA Tournament, 32 in the NIT and WBIT, a total of 100).
For the last 25 years a different tournament, the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), has served as the second-tier championship in women’s basketball, analogous with the men’s NIT. However, the WNIT is administered outside of the NCAA, by a for-profit company called Triple Crown Sports and consequently, teams bid for hosting rights. That sounds like a bad thing on the surface, but it often proves beneficial for mid-major schools, since for the low, low price of $6,500 or so, they might be able to secure a home game against a high-major opponent, as Green Bay did when hosting Minnesota in 2022.
The WBIT’s creation almost certainly forces the WNIT down one layer in the postseason pecking order, though the latter tournament immediately responded with an announcement that it was continuing on in 2024, albeit with a field trimmed back to 48 teams, from 64.
No such comment has been issued by the Women’s Basketball Invitational (WBI), the until-now third-tier tournament that is also privately-run, by Sport Tours International, and has been pretty significant for the Horizon League over the years, given that three HL schools have won its title (Detroit Mercy in 2013, then-member UIC in 2014, and Cleveland State in 2021). But given the WBI’s newfound branding issues (the WBIT literally has an identical name, other than the word “tournament” tacked on to the end) and the additional hits to its prestige and standing, things ain’t looking too great.
One other item worth pointing out: with only 32 teams in the WBIT (versus the previous 64 in the WNIT), it’s extremely unlikely that the new tournament will offer automatic bids to conference regular season champions that do not qualify for the NCAA Tournament, as the WNIT has since 2007. That regular season autobid guaranteed at least two total postseason placements for every conference, and it also helped the Horizon League frequently snag multiple WNIT slots, including a pair in 2022 and three in both 2018 and 2019. It’s not out of the question that going forward, as often as not, the conference’s only representative in the top two postseason tournaments will be the NCAA Tournament automatic bid winner.
So, while many may celebrate the overall increase of postseason bids for women’s basketball, the development probably isn’t super for the HL and other mid-major leagues. Then again, when was the last time any sort of tectonic shift in the college sports landscape was?
2. Knight time is the right time
Does anyone still recruit high schoolers? Yeah, Purdue Fort Wayne, which has landed two 2024 pledges within the last week to bolster that reputation.
One was Mariah Knight, a 6-1 power forward and a big-time get as Prep Girls Hoops’ third-ranked player in the state of Kentucky. She’s repeatedly called an elite-level post player by basically everyone who watches her at Christian Academy of Louisville (where she nearly averaged a double-double last season with 15.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game), and she has the potential to finally bring some certainty to what’s been a challenging area of the floor for Maria Marchesano over the last couple years. Oh, and did I mention that she has three-point range as well? Because she does.
The Dons have also added Taeya Steinauer, from Lincoln Prep and Oakville, Ontario, Canada to the 2024 class (not coincidentally, after she got to see their bedazzled ball). Steinauer is a 5-11 guard, though it seems like she plays with a length well beyond that listed height.
It can sometimes be hard to find information about players from outside of the U.S., but fortunately, typing “taeya steinauer basketball” into the Google box yielded this highlight video and got me off the hook.
So yeah, she’s really good too. They say that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, but they never add the part where you’re basically screwed if the talent does work hard, and she definitely made a couple pretty impressive effort plays in there. I did double check to make sure there weren’t some weird Canadian rules about the court size or the number of players on the floor that helped her lay down that tape.
OH THAT REMINDS ME: Taeya’s father is Orlondo Steinauer, who is the head coach and president of football operations for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Go Ti-Cats baby.
3. Good Kleif
Northern Kentucky’s coaching staff received a bit of a jolt earlier this month when Marquette poached Norse associate head coach Kayla Kleifgen.
Kleifgen had been at NKU for seven years, as she was one of Camryn Volz’s original staff members dating back to 2016-17, and the two were also at Kentucky together for a season prior to their move to Highland Heights. My quick survey says that Kleifgen was the fifth longest-tenured assistant in the Horizon League, behind only Youngstown State’s John Nicolais, Robert Morris’ Scott Schneider and the Green Bay duo of Sarah Bronk and Megan Vogel. It’s not exactly a coincidence that those programs all have a ridiculous level of stability, a luxury that only arrives through success.
But…if you help turn an 8-22 team into an HL contender, as Kleifgen did, there’s a pretty decent chance that the Big East will take notice, so that end of things isn’t stunning. What is a little unusual: with her departure, Volz’s remaining deputies are now John McCray and Mallory Odell, both of whom were hired two months ago, and anyone hired to fill Kleifgen’s now-vacant spot will obviously be new as well. Throw in the turnover of the Norse’s on-court centerpieces for the last few years (Lindsey Duvall and Ivy Turner, most notably) and it’s probably fair to say that no team in the conference is rebooting this season quite like NKU.
4. Release the Kraker
It’s not an atypical life for those who chase the dream of professional basketball, but Green Bay alumna Mehryn Kraker has traveled quite the road since playing for the Phoenix between 2012 and 2017. After winning Horizon League Player of the Year honors as a senior, the six-footer was selected by Washington in the third round of the WNBA Draft.
Though she didn’t stick with the Mystics, she ended up playing in Spain for three seasons (with two different teams), while coming back home during a couple summers to play for the Wisconsin GLO of the GWBA. In 2020-21, she stayed a little longer and was a member of the Green Bay coaching staff before resuming her playing career by signing with KFUM Ostersund Basket in Sweden. After that, she headed down under, and just finished her second season in the NBL1’s West Conference with the Rockingham Flames.
Pack light, you can buy a new toothbrush when you get there.
Anyway, Kraker has once again found a new team: the Bendigo Spirit of the WNBL, representing a personal promotion to Australia’s top league. Though it’s in the same country as before, which presumably helps with the paperwork, it’s still quite the jaunt – 2,086 miles, to be exact – from Rockingham on Australia’s west coast to Bendigo, a couple hours inland from Melbourne near the southeast corner of the nation.
5. Red returns to Green Bay’s branding
One thing to know about Wisconsin is that people there definitely like alcohol. Probably too much, if we’re being completely honest. I mean, look at the absolute black hole on this map showing excessive drinking by U.S. county that made the internet rounds a couple years back:
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that both of the Horizon League’s Wisconsin schools now have an official beer. In 2021, Milwaukee Brewing Company came up with Panther Pilsner, and this month, their northern rivals have joined the fun with Phoenix Rising Red Lager, produced by Badger State Brewing.
I’m already envisioning an Instagram Live where I crush a case of that stuff and hopefully a few of America’s Dairyland’s finest cheeses (from the safety of my hotel room, of course) for your entertainment.