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2021-22 Marquette Women’s Basketball Season Preview: The Returning Players

Megan Duffy brings back 10 players, including three starters, from last year’s squad that extended MU’s NCAA tournament streak.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Marquette vs St. John
What kind of role will Chloe Marotta have on this year’s MU squad?
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Well, hello there.

Yes, we are just days away from the start of the Marquette women’s basketball season, and all we have done to preview the season is team looks at the rest of the league. We should probably talk a little bit about the Golden Eagles since that’s the point of the site, eh?

Here, we’re going to talk about the returning players to the roster before we dive into the newcomers in a different article. We’ll split the returners up between starters and bench players, sorting by average minutes played last season when we get there, but it’s probably important to mention who is not on this roster any more first.

The big one is Selena Lott, who elected (rightly, by the way) to enter the WNBA draft following her fourth year of college hoops instead of returning for her COVID-bonus season. Everything we’re going to talk about here and relative to the newcomers as well has to be filtered through the fact that the Golden Eagles’ leader on the floor and leader on the stat sheet (tops in scoring, assists, and steals) last year has moved on.

Lott’s departure was an expected loss though, since it was her fourth year of college. The transfers of Camryn Taylor and Taylor Valladay after two years each in Milwaukee, well, that’s a bit more unexpected, at least from the outside looking in. Taylor started all 26 games for Marquette last season, just like all five starters did, and averaged 12.0 points and a team high 6.9 rebounds per game. Valladay played a big role off the bench for head coach Megan Duffy, appearing in all 26 games and averaging 19.8 minutes per contest in relief of both of MU’s starting guards. Her statistical impact is smaller than Taylor’s (5.9 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists, just short of a steal per game), but the coaching staff had her playing notable minutes and they are going to have to be filled one way or another.

The Starters

Jordan King

Junior - #23 - Guard - 5’11” - Rockton, Illinois

Honestly, when I started framing this article out, I didn’t expect to start with Jordan King, but the facts of the matter are that she is MU’s leading returner in minutes per game. The order is what the order is. King gave the Golden Eagles over 31 minutes a night in the backcourt last season while averaging 9.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and exactly four assists. That’s pretty good across the board contribution, particularly when Marquette wasn’t leaning on her to score.

That is, of course, written in the past tense. With Lott and Taylor gone, that’s two of Marquette’s top three scorers gone, and someone has to pick up the slack. King is going to have to step up one way or another this season. She can’t do much more in terms of minutes played, so King’s additions to the team are going to have to be purely in the efficiency department as she starts to do more with her minutes. Item #1 on that list? Just improving her shooting percentages. She shot just 23% from long range last season on nearly three attempts per game, and that had a decent sized impact on her overall shooting, dragging it down to just 38%. King shot just under 45% on two-point shots, which is just fine, just a bit over average nationally according to Her Hoop Stats. She also shot just 67% from the free throw line, down from 73% her freshman year. There’s clearly space for improvement here, and considering that Megan Duffy took King to New York for Big East Media Day, the coaches are expecting that improvement.

Lauren Van Kleunen

Graduate Student - #42 - Forward - 6’2” - Mason, Ohio

My instinct when framing this out was that Van Kleunen, Marquette’s lone preseason all-conference rep this season, was going to be the first player that we talked about in this section. However, she only averaged 28.6 minutes per game last season, and if we’re going to sort things by minutes per game in the bench section, then we have to do it everywhere.

Van Kleunen was Second Team All-Big East last season after averaging 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. She was a big part of the Golden Eagles operating as one of the best rebounding teams in the country last year, as LVK ranked #388 in the country in offensive rebounding rate. She also found her outside shooting touch, connecting on 48% of her 21 three-point attempts after never shooting better than 25% in any of her first three seasons of competition.

Much like King, Van Kleunen finds herself in a position where her partner-in-crime is gone now. Camryn Taylor did more interior scoring and rebounding than LVK did last year, but Van Kleunen was the more reliable player in terms of minutes per game. Unlike King, though, I don’t know if Marquette can actually ask Van Kleunen to more than she already was doing. LVK played more than 28 minutes per game last season and racked up a 51% shooting percentage which ranked #214 in the country. This might have to be a case of “we know what Lauren gives us, we just have to do good things elsewhere to make things easier for her.”

Chloe Marotta

Senior - #52 - Forward - 6’1” - Mequon, Wisconsin

Marotta had a big breakout season as a junior last year. She went from part-time to full time starter for Megan Duffy and raised her points, rebounds, and assists from the year before while getting about nine minutes more per game on the floor on average. She also shot nearly 42% from behind the arc, a drastic improvement on the 20% and 33% from her first two years on the MU roster, but Marotta attempted just 12 long range shots all year.

Van Kleunen gets a lot of credit for executing Duffy’s vision of excelling on the glass, and it’s well deserved, but Marotta is quietly beating LVK out. The Wisconsin native ranked #408 in the country last season in offensive rebounding rate and just barely outside the top 500 on the defensive glass according to Her Hoop Stats. That’s remarkable consistency, and something that Marquette is going to need from her again with Camryn Taylor chipping in.

Marotta provides the biggest “What if...?” amongst the three returning starters. She probably had the least defined role of the three, which allowed her to fill in the seams on the floor in terms of whatever MU needed at the time. At 6’1”, she has just enough size and mobility to slide back and forth between guard/wing/forward for the Golden Eagles, depending on matchups and specific situations. The “what if” part kicks in because of what MU loses in the departures of Lott, Taylor, and Valladay. By default, people are going to have to step up into new roles this season, and of the three returning starters, Marotta has the biggest opportunity to do so.

The question behind that, though, is whether the coaching staff elects to ask more from Marotta or if they keep her in the jack-of-all-trades role and find other pieces to supplement the lineup. You could easily successfully convince me that either direction is the right way to go based on what else MU has to work with this season and the fact that I think Marotta hasn’t hit her ceiling yet, so we’ll have to wait and see which direction we go.

The Bench

Claire Kaifes

Junior - #10 - Guard - 5’11” - Shawnee, Kansas

Kaifes is the only returning player who didn’t start last season but did play in all 26 games. That’s a potential advantage for the Golden Eagles, especially as the Kansas native got a little bit more than 15 minutes of action a night.

Her primary role last season was to come off the bench and knock down shots. Kaifes attempted just 89 shots in 26 games last year, and a whopping 73 of them came behind the three-point line. She was reasonably successful at it, splashing 34% of her long range attempts. The good news there is that she hit 37% in MU’s 21 games against Big East opponents, so she got a little bit better as the season went along.

Kaifes’ role as “bench shooter” doesn’t even really explain how integral she was to the squad. The fact of the matter is that Marquette just did not shoot a lot of threes last season, and for good reason. Marquette shot just 32% as a team because they just did not have quality reliable shooters.... or at least not ones that they were willing to rely on. Sure, Van Kleunen and Marotta hit shots, but they were attempting less than one per game. If we use 1.0 per contest as the barrier for entry, Kaifes was the second most accurate shooter on the team last season... and if we crank it up to 2.0, she was the top of the chart.

We will have to wait to see if Megan Duffy’s scheme largely changes this season given the personnel changes from last year. If the Golden Eagles start to use long range shots to help clear out the middle a little bit more, then there’s a big spot for Kaifes to help out.

Of course, we have a question about how much she’ll be able to contribute. Check out the picture in the top right of the tweet.

That’s Kaifes with a hip to ankle brace in early July. You see that kind of a brace a lot when you have a knee injury, particularly the kind that needs surgery. Now, yes, that was four months ago. But we also know that Kaifes was fine to play in March. I don’t know what the injury was and pictures from say, Marquette Madness, show Kaifes unencumbered by the brace and in uniform. That certainly makes it look like she’ll be good to go, but we’ll see what opening night brings.

Liza Karlen

Sophomore - #32 - Forward - 6’2” - St. Paul, Minnesota

As you can tell from her spot at #2 on this list, Karlen had a pretty good freshman year. 24 appearances, 11.3 minutes per night, 4.0 points, 3.1 rebounds per game, all good stuff. She even paid off on the three-point shooting that we highlighted in last year’s previews, hitting on 39.5% of her 1.6 attempts per game, and both of those numbers went up during Big East action.

Karlen is likely the biggest beneficiary of Camryn Taylor’s departure. Minutes at forward/center have to come from somewhere on this roster, and Karlen was getting minutes behind both Taylor and Van Kleunen last year. No Taylor, in theory, means more minutes for Karlen, depending on what direction the coaching staff goes with their schemes this year.

I think Karlen has an intriguing amount of upside on the roster. 3.1 rebounds doesn’t sound impressive, but she was top 300 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rates last season. I don’t know how much of that can continue with a boost in minutes played, but someone who can hit the glass and cash in shots from the outside is a valuable resource in any basketball system.

Antwainette Walker

Redshirt Junior - #4 - Guard - 5’11” - Lisle, Illinois

We’re starting to drift out of the regular rotation here as evidenced by Walker only playing in 18 of Marquette’s 26 games and only 15 of the 21 total games against Big East teams. I liked what we saw from her, generally speaking, but she was behind Valladay and Kaifes when it came to backcourt rotation minutes and what we saw wasn’t much at just 7.9 minutes per game and just 142 total minutes on the season. Ultimately, the problem here is that we really don’t know what she can and can’t do given how much she didn’t actually play last season.

Walker strikes me as much more of a possible replacement for Valladay in the rotation than thinking she might go straight into the starting lineup for Lott. That’s largely speaking due to one of the newcomers which we’ll get to next time around, but the point still stands. The good news is that there’s an available spot in the rotation for the 5’11” guard from the Chicagoland area.

Rose Nkumu

Sophomore - #3 - Guard - 5’7” - Iowa City, Iowa

There’s a chance that Rose Nkumu could be ticketed for a spot in the starting lineup or at the very least a prominent role in the rotation. Marquette needs a playmaking guard to replace Selena Lott’s production in the lineup, and Nkumu could be that player.

Now, to be clear, this is mostly based on what she did before she got to Marquette. Facts are facts: She set her high school’s career record for assists and steals while tallying over 1,300 points. That’s a lot of multidimensional talent for the coaching staff to harness there. It just didn’t come out much at all last season. The 5’7” Iowan played in just 15 games with an average run time of 3.7 minutes per game and a season high in a 13 point win over Xavier that was only that close because the Musketeers closed the game on a 12-2 run.

While there’s an awful lot of “there’s no spot for Nkumu on the floor” going on in those numbers from last season, a lot of that can be explained by “what, are we going to take Selena Lott off the floor?” Sometimes that’s how rotations go on a basketball team, especially when you’re a freshman like Nkumu was last year. With two players in the rotation in front of her — Lott and Valladay — now departed, this year marks a big chance for Nkumu to make her mark.

Julianna Okosun

Sophomore - #0 - Forward - 6’4” - Copenhagen, Denmark

12 games played, 33 total minutes of action. That’s it for the freshman campaign for the 6’4” Danish forward. It was not a whole heck of a lot of anything.

She remains the tallest player on the team, so I remain convinced purely for that reason that there’s a tremendous amount of upside in Okosun’s game. The biggest thing I can possibly say for her for 2021-22 is that she would most benefit from attacking the opportunities on the court that she gets. Last year, she seemed to have a lot of tentative reactions to mixing it up in the middle. I don’t know how much of that is “getting used to college basketball” and how much is “getting used to basketball in America” and how much is “was a freshman.” If Okosun can show an ability to rebound and defend, there’s definitely minutes available for her this year.

Danyel Middleton

Sophomore - #25 - Guard - 5’10” - Chicago, Illinois

Ah, yes, Danyel Middleton, the winner of my “hey, can we get her in the game already?” award. I can’t think of how many times I was watching the end stage of an easy Marquette victory last season and — for whatever reason, the coaching staff just refused to put the 5’10” guard from Chicago in the game. Five games played, nine total minutes.

I have no insight for you here, other than I was wondering for a long time — Middleton didn’t play at all until December 22nd, the seventh game of the year — if she was going to redshirt the entire season. Now, technically, last year was a redshirt season for everyone thanks to the NCAA’s COVID relief, so completely sitting Middleton out wouldn’t have made a lot of sense..... but in a sense, that is what happened here.

Again, a lot of this has to do with “well, who are you taking off the floor?” But MU’s starting backcourt both averaged over 32 minutes per game last season. I don’t know if Marquette would have been much better last year if Lott and King were whittled down to 30-ish. MU opened up the year 12-2 and then only lost to UConn, DePaul, and in the NCAA tournament the rest of the way. It’s not like crowbarring some minutes in for Middleton to get Lott some rest in January was going to make a huge difference.

Nirel Lougbo

Junior - #1 - Guard - 5’10” - North Andover, Massachusetts

We wrap up with the biggest question mark on the roster. Nirel Lougbo played in all 32 games in the 2019-20 season, averaging 14 minutes per game. She didn’t do much else, going for 1.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.2 assists, but she was a reliable cog on the floor for Megan Duffy during her freshman season.

And then she didn’t play at all last year.

This was never explained, so it’s unclear if this was intentionally sitting Lougbo out for developmental reasons or if she opted out of the year for COVID reasons. I highly doubt it was the last one, as Lougbo was traveling with the team and going through gameday walkthroughs. But she didn’t play at all and now it’s been over 20 months since she played in a college basketball game.

Does she vault right back to the front of the line as the first guard off the bench with Valladay gone? Is there a shot that she goes straight into the starting lineup next to Jordan King? Is she going to be fighting with Rose Nkumu for minutes? There’s a bunch of different scenarios, and until we actually see Lougbo in uniform again, it’s almost impossible to guess how she’s going to fit in this year.