Rockne's Weekly Wrap-Up

Dec. 15, 2005

By Dick Rockne

If a basketball league is only as strong as its bottom teams, the race for the Pacific-10 Conference women's championship could be a knockdown, drag-out nightmare for coaches and a competitive party for the players and fans.

As to whether the chase will lead to a validation of the league as one of the country's strongest is open to conjecture - the Pac-10's history is such that because member teams beat up on each other its stature is hurt when NCAA tournament berths are doled out.

And based on what's happened so far this season, beating up seems more inevitable than ever.

Why? Consider what has happened to last season's bottom four -- Washington, California, Washington State and Oregon State. When last seen during the 2004-05 campaign they were playing the dreaded first-round games in the Pac-10 tournament at San Jose.

As if humiliated by the Friday night indignity, it has become apparent that all four have made significant improvements.

Through games of Dec. 14, Washington has gone from being a senior-less team with a 4-5 nonconference record in 2004-05 to a more poised 7-2 squad this season with three seniors and a group of experienced sophomores and juniors who obviously benefited from being thrown to the wolves.

California, with a new coach (Joanne Boyle) and a group of freshmen judged to be one of the best yearling classes in the country, has gone from 6-3 to 8-2. Washington State has become a more cohesive blend of old and new players and is 6-2, up from 4-5.Oregon State, also with a new coach (LaVonda Wagner) has relied on strong defense in going 5-1, an improvement from last season's 4-5.

Collectively, the Friday Night Four have gone from being 18-22 (.450) in nonconference games to being 26-7 (.787).

'We feel very good about our 7-2 start,'' Washington coach June Daugherty said. 'We feel like we've played some pretty good competition.''

Washington's record includes a victory over Utah, ranked No. 23 at the time of the game, and a seven-point loss to Baylor's unbeaten, defending national champions at Waco. The Huskies also scored victories over Alabama (SEC), Florida State (ACC), Rice (Conference USA) and Michigan (Big Ten).

Boyle, a long-time assistant at Duke who was head coach at Richmond for three seasons (67-29) before taking over at California, has shown no reluctance in starting four of her six freshmen - Ashley Walker, Devanei Hampton, Jere Morris and Alexis Gray-Lawson.

'We're not there yet, by any means,'' Boyle said of the freshmen. 'Every day early in the season I felt we were taking three steps forward and two steps back. Now I feel we're taking four steps forward and one step back. So they're really starting to get it.

'Part of it is learning how to work hard and be patient and sacrifice for each other and all that kind of stuff. They were clueless but they were freshmen and now I feel they're starting to get that.''

Freshmen also have played prominent roles in Washington State's quick start, but so, too, has veteran Kate Benz. The 6-foot-2 junior from Portland is the main reason the Cougars are leading the league in rebound margin, according to coach Sherri Murrell.

'The kid (Benz) wants the ball every time she's on the floor,'' Murrell said. 'And it's not something we're doing special, it's just something that's in her.''

Benz leads the league in rebounding (12.3 average) and is among the national leaders.

Murrell said a positive turning point for the Cougars occurred Dec. 4, when they won an overtime game at Boise State.

'A turning point in a sense that you have to have confidence in each other to win a game,'' Murrell said. 'We haven't had confidence in each other in the past. We didn't have that ability. You have to believe that your teammate is going to hit those free throws. You have to believe that when you make that pass the post player is going to make the bucket.

'So, that was a difference for our program. And any win on the road is good, but a win in that fashion for this program is a turner.''

Oregon State, which yielded an average of 69.9 points a game last season, limited its first six opponents this season to 52 points. The defensive emphasis is no accident.

'We put an emphasis on that from Day 1 - being able to get some stops and do different things to come up with some possessions and get some offense off of our defense,'' said Wagner, who is in her first season as a head coach.

Along with a willingness to play tough defense is a hunger for success.

'I know they (players) want to compete this year,'' Wagner said. 'I know they have a bad taste in their mouths from last year (6-23, 1-17) and they're just trying to to whatever they can to get better.''

But despite all the improvements made by Washington, California, Washington State and Oregon State the road ahead for them will be difficult. Coach Charli Turner Thorne might have her best team ever in her 10th season at Arizona State. UCLA has three of the country's best guards in Nikki Blue, Lisa Willis and Noelle Quinn. Stanford, with all-American Candice Wiggins on the perimeter and 6-3 Brooke Smith on the frontline, will be tough as usual.

USC, said coach Mark Trakh, is 'playing hard but we're not shooting real well.''

Arizona's Wildcats won four of their first seven games while dealing with the tragedy of Shawntinice Polk and adapting to a revised offense dictated by the untimely death of the 6-5 center.

'I think all our kids have stepped up to the plate,'' Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini said.

Oregon is learning how to play without last season's leaders - frontliners Cathrine Kraayeveld and Andrea Bills and point guard Corrie Mizusawa.

'Defensively we feel we are ready and offensively we just have to make sure to give our kids lots of confidence,'' Oregon coach Bev Smith said.

Overall, Pac-10 teams were 58-20 (.744) after 78 nonconference games, a record that would indicate that the league is on the way to validating last season's performance when five of its teams participated in the NCAA tournament and all five won first-round games. Two teams reached the Sweet 16 and one, Stanford, got to the final Eight.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said she believes league members have performed well this season, but would have hoped for more than the five victories achieved in 19 games against ranked teams.

'I feel kind of greedy,'' VanDerveer said. 'I was disappointed we didn't beat Minnesota and Tennessee. I was disappointed that UCLA has some losses that I was hoping it would get. And I was hoping that USC would have beaten Ohio State.''

But with so many returning players, VanDerveer believes the Pac-10 to be competitive nationally.

'And the fact we had five teams in the NCAA tournament and five teams won their first game, that is definitely helping us in terms of perception of the strength of the conference this year,' VanDerveer said.

So, let the (Pac-10) games begin.

'From top to bottom, everybody is getting better,'' WSU's Murrell said, 'including us, Oregon State and Cal. And to see how well Washington is doing I just think top to bottom it's going to be a grind.''



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