All eyes are on BYU’s Amari Whiting as the Cougars start first Big-12 season

Whiting suffered an ACL tear last year, but is already making her mark as a freshman.

(BYU Athletics) Freshman guard Amari Whiting dribbles the ball during BYU women's basketball's exhibition game against Westminster College on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.

Provo • The BYU women’s basketball team went through a transition period last season when Amber Whiting took over as head coach. The Cougars had a 16-17 overall record in a season where it was adjusting to losing a ton of production via graduation and the transfer portal.

This season, BYU has another transition to endure: entering the Big 12 Conference. The conference’s head coaches predicted BYU would finish 11th in its first year.

The Cougars started their season in earnest Monday against Montana State, a team they lost to last preseason. And even though the Big 12 schedule doesn’t start until Dec. 30, there will be plenty to talk about in the meantime.

Perhaps one of the biggest topics of conversation involves Whiting’s daughter, Amari, who flipped her commitment from Oregon and followed her mother to BYU last year. Soon after her commitment, however, she tore her ACL.

Whiting is back on the court for the Cougars, but is still working herself back into playing shape. Already, she’s making a mark.

Whiting started and played 21 minutes in the team’s only official exhibition last week against Westminster, and scored 10 points while adding four rebounds, three steals and an assist. In Tuesday’s win over Montana State, Whiting played 29 minutes and filled the box score with 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and seven turnovers.

“Coming back from an ACL is always hard,” Amber Whiting said. “It’s hard to get your rhythm back. It’s hard to get your legs back under you. So I think she’s still fighting that.”

Whiting is only a freshman on a team that includes seniors Lauren Gustin and Kaylee Smiler, who are both in their final years of college eligibility. And while Gustin is on national watch lists and could break the team’s all-time rebounding record this season, Whiting is the future of this BYU team.

ESPN ranked Whiting No. 33 among girls’ basketball players for the recruiting class of 2023. She led her high school team in Idaho to a state championship with record-breaking performances, and was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in girls’ basketball after that 2021-22 season.

It seems Whiting has already won the respect of her BYU teammates.

“She works her a-- off,” Gustin said. “It really, I think, fuels the rest of us to want to work and push. She’s been a great add to the team and brings an intense energy.”

Smiler described Whiting as a “firework,” which she said is helpful for the Cougars because she plays the point guard position and has shown an ability to uplift her teammates.

“She is a freshman, so it will come with experience,” Smiler said. “But just her personality already from the get-go, she’s somebody that can get people fired up and it’ll be really useful once we come into the season and you see people making mistakes. She’s able to build other people up.”

Gustin and Smiler are the lone seniors on the team, which means BYU has plenty of players from last year returning. They include Nani Falatea, Ari Mackey-Williams, Emma Calvert and Rose Bubakar.

Amber Whiting also recruited plenty of talent. Kailey Woolston, the 2023 Gatorade Player of the Year in Utah for girls’ basketball who played at Lone Peak High, is the type of shooter the Cougars haven’t had probably since Tegan Graham. Plus, they picked up transfers Lauren Davenport and Kylie Krebs from the transfer portal.

The team feels confident about the outside shooting on its roster, and Amber Whiting believes that can lead to Gustin having a monster season.

“I want Lauren to average a triple-double,” Amber Whiting said. “There’s new goals for her, bigger goals. We do have a lot of shooters around that will create that space for her to be able to work.”

Gustin was one of the premier double-double machines in the country last season. She was second in the country with 27, behind only Angel Reese of LSU (34), who played three more games due to the NCAA Tournament.

Amber Whiting said figuring out her rotation has been a “juggling act” going into this season. On the team’s trip to Italy, three players didn’t play. And right now, Falatea and Mackey-Williams are injured. Falatea, however, is expected back to the court soon.

The added depth on the roster has the Cougars encouraged about the season. Amber Whiting said last year, her players “ran out of gas” in the waning minutes of fourth quarters. She hopes that issue is in the past.

Additionally, the second-year coach has seen improvement from some of her most important players. Smiler is driving to the basket more. Gustin has improved her outside shot and is even taking 3-pointers. Bubakar, who had a nagging back issue last season, is rebounding and getting by defenders with ease.

“I see a lot of balance on our team this year,” Amber Whiting said. “That’s one thing I’m really excited about.”