What top-ranked LSU's season-opening loss means in quest for repeat women's hoops title

LSU forward Angel Reese, guard Last-Tear Poa and guard Mikaylah Williams look on during their women's college basketball game against Colorado on Nov. 6, 2023 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is no need for Kim Mulkey and her LSU Tigers to panic. The season isn’t doomed. The roster isn’t bad. The quest for a repeat title isn’t over.

But their double-digit loss to a very good Colorado team on the first day of the season could negatively impact their road to lifting the trophy on the last day of it. There is limited opportunity in LSU’s nonconference schedule for the Tigers to notch signature wins on their NCAA tournament résumé and it could mean another lower seed for LSU come March.

No, to Mulkey’s point postgame, the sky is not falling on the Tigers. But the ceiling might have dropped.

LSU came into the preseason as title favorites with forward Angel Reese, a National Player of the Year candidate, and sophomore Flau’jae Johnson returning from the title team. The Tigers added Hailey Van Lith, a former All-America honorable mention guard, and Aneesah Morrow, the 2022-23 Division I scoring leader, in the transfer portal. And they brought in a top recruiting class led by two-time Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year Mikaylah Williams.

It’s one of the most talented rosters in the country. It’s also one of the least experienced playing together. One preseason of practices isn’t going to immediately turn the Tigers into a team capable of taking down a program like Colorado, even if they entered the season as reigning champions and the Associated Press' No. 1 team.

Mulkey knew it would be a difficult matchup for them. This Colorado group defeated Middle Tennessee and upset No. 3-seeded Duke in the 2023 NCAA tournament, then fell by 10 to Iowa in the Sweet 16.

She said much of the same after the loss in Las Vegas to the Buffaloes, who returned four starters and a key reserve. Center Aaronette Vonleh is a junior, Frida Formann and Tameiya Sadler are seniors, and Quay Miller and Jaylyn Sherrod are graduate students.

“You have that many kids with that many minutes together, we had our hands full,” Mulkey said. “We had two returning players from our team last year that started, so we’re putting in some new kids that have experience, but not in this system. Colorado did exactly what I thought they would do. They shot the ball from 3, they were poised, polished, hungry, everything I’ve said about them, you saw today. We’ll get back to work and dig a little deeper.”

LSU head coach Kim Mulkey looks on as the top-ranked Tigers fall to Colorado in the season's first game on Nov. 6, 2023 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LSU head coach Kim Mulkey looks on as the top-ranked Tigers fall to Colorado in the season's first game on Nov. 6, 2023 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is plenty of time and lower-quality opponents for the Tigers to dig deeper, build chemistry and solidify as a team before SEC play begins in January. One loss to a quality opponent doesn’t signify that won’t end up happening, even if Mulkey was displeased with the team’s fight on opening night.

“You have to have that dog in you and I don’t think we had it tonight,” Mulkey said.

LSU’s nonconference schedule is slightly better than last season, but only barely. It opens its home schedule Thursday by hosting Queens (N.C.), an Atlantic Sun team that finished 8-21 last season with a NET ranking of 245 out of 361 teams. The Royals lost to No. 12 Ole Miss, 91-44, on Monday. Mississippi Valley State, with a 2022-23 NET of 359 (third worst) comes to the Maravich Center on Sunday.

In all, six of LSU’s 14 nonconference opponents have NET rankings in the 300s. Two are in the 240s and three more in the 100s. That leaves three nonconference opponents at the moment that LSU could defeat for a signature win. There’s not a lot of margin for error.

Colorado, ranked 20 in NET, controlled the second half and frustrated the LSU offense. The Tigers defensively couldn’t stop Vonleh in the paint nor Formann on the perimeter. LSU has 2 ½ weeks until its next significant chance against Virginia (NET 53) on Nov. 25 in the second game of the two-day Cayman Islands Classic.

Their best nonconference opponent comes immediately afterward against Virginia Tech (NET 7) in the ACC/SEC Challenge on Nov. 30 at home. It’s a rematch of the 2023 Final Four that LSU won, 79-72.

Comparatively, SEC foe South Carolina and head coach Dawn Staley scheduled Notre Dame (9), Maryland (11), South Dakota State (36), North Carolina (24), Duke (10), Utah (8) and UConn (3). Tennessee also scheduled a tough slate that features some of the Big Ten and ACC’s best. UConn, who played the toughest schedule in NET ranking each of the past two years, plays NC State (18), Maryland (11), UCLA (22), Texas (12), North Carolina (24), Louisville (17) and South Carolina (1).

That’s not to say LSU is no longer a title contender because it lost to Colorado a mere 12 hours into the season. It will instead highlight early issues to correct or double-down upon. That was lacking last season when LSU’s first loss didn’t come until February and an SEC tournament loss to Tennessee fueled its run to the Final Four.

Winning a title in April is all about getting hot in March, which is exactly what the Tigers did as a No. 3 seed. It’s more difficult, but not impossible, especially as parity continues to grow in the sport. And at least two LSU starters, plus a few reserves, have firsthand experience in that.

The sky is not falling. The sun will, to Mulkey’s point, come out tomorrow. And because it’s the ASUN, things are looking up for LSU. At least until the tournament committee gathers to build a bracket amid another cloudy view of the Tigers.