Pac-12 Feature: Media day tips off 2016-17 women's basketball season
For many of the Pac-12 women’s basketball coaches, putting the teams in this deep, talented conference in rank order was as difficult as it has ever been.
“I can tell you that in 20 years, it’s by far the been the most difficult to do,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said Thursday to the media at Pac-12 headquarters in San Francisco, which hosted the annual Pac-12 women’s basketball media day. “Good luck with yours, trying to figure out who truly is going to win this thing.”
UCLA was chosen by the conference coaches to win the Pac-12 title at the start of what might turn out to be the most competitive season in conference history.
The Bruins received eight first-place votes. Stanford, picked second, received two first-place votes. Washington, coming off its first-ever NCAA Women's Final Four appearance, was picked to finish third, followed by Arizona State. Oregon State, the Pac-12’s other Final Four participant last spring was picked to finish fifth, followed by Cal. Oregon, Utah, USC, Washington State are next followed by the two teams with new head coaches, Colorado and Arizona.
The conference is returning eight of 12 all-conference performers after an unprecedented 2015-16 season in which two teams made the Final Four.
“When you have to put a No. 9 by somebody’s name, you are going ‘Wait, that team is really good’,” said Washington coach Mike Neighbors. “But somebody’s got to be ninth. It’s a testament to the league and what it’s become. I think you could have done a lot of different scenarios and it would have been equally as hard.”
For one coach, the unquestioned legend in the room, it was too difficult.
“I don’t like the coaches poll,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I’d rather have you guys (the media) do that. I gave it to my assistant coaches to do. But if I had done it, it would have been really hard.”
Following up a Final Four
Life has changed undeniably for both Washington and Oregon State, even as the Huskies and the Beavers try to push forward on the court without letting last spring’s appearance in the national semifinal set them on a difference course.
At Washington, Neighbors said that his phone calls are getting returned a little faster now.
In Corvallis, Oregon State’s tip-off dinner was a sell-out, season ticket sales are up significantly and it’s a little tough to walk through the airport without getting stopped.
“But those are all good things,” Rueck said.
Senior All-American Kelsey Plum boldly declared, “I’m just going to be blunt. I’m over it. I’ve moved on. I’ve prepared the same way I have prepared personally for any other year.”
And Neighbors said the Huskies are doing just that.
“Nothing has really changed around the practice gym,” Neighbors said. “Kelsey (Plum) talked about us moving on. I was wearing our Final Four ring when we were out recruiting and in home visits and she told me to take it off. Put it away. I thought that was very poignant and I did. And you won’t see me wear it again, because it’s time to move on.
“When they drop the banner, we will clap. But I guarantee you, there has not been one second spent on focusing back.”
For what it’s worth, Rueck said he isn’t sporting his ring in public either.
“It’s a little pretentious, first off,” Rueck said. “And it’s not about the past, it’s about what’s next. There are times when I wear it at home because it just feels good.”
The Welcome Wagon
The conference rolled out the welcome mat Thursday for its two newest coaches, Colorado’s JR Payne and Arizona’s Adia Barnes.
Barnes, for one, is no stranger to the Pac-12. Not only was she a longtime assistant at Washington before taking the job in Tucson just days after the Final Four, she was the 1998 Pac-10 Player of the Year for the Wildcats.
Both Payne and Barnes said they relished the challenge of rebuilding their programs in the tough Pac-12.
“That’s something that really drew me to Colorado and the conference,” said Payne, who came to Boulder after two years at Santa Clara, where her program’s signature win was a non-conference victory over Stanford. “It’s an awesome challenge. It’s one thing to build a program and make it seem better, but to have the challenge laid in front of you to build a program in truly the No. 1 conference in the country is just phenomenal and I’m excited about it. We talk about it with our players, about how it’s going to take more than the minimum. It takes all of our best efforts to be able to do that.”
Barnes’ team was picked to finish last in the conference race and she said it doesn’t bother her at all.
“Just being the underdog, I’m perfectly fine with that,” Barnes said. “I don’t know where we are picked and that’s fine. But I know what I’m here for. I know what we are going to do and I know what we are capable of.”
Extension for Gottlieb
Cal announced Thursday morning a contract extension for coach Lindsay Gottlieb through the 2020-21 season. Gottlieb, who began as an assistant at Cal when she was 27, left to become a head coach at UC Santa Barbara and then returned to the Bears as the head coach in April 2011, said she is where she wants to be.
“If I look at all the top programs, they have connection and longevity and they are building something lasting,” Gottlieb said. “I came to Cal to be here for the long-term, I wanted to make this one of the elite programs in the country year in and year out, and this allows us the ability to keep creating that.”
Gottlieb said she appreciates the validation of her work.
“It’s pretty neat to think that the players believe in what we are building here. I want to be at Cal for a long time.”
A Plum Opportunity
As the conference’s lone returning All-American, Kelsey Plum is in a great position to break the Pac-12 scoring record held by Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike. Plum enters the season with 2,418 points. Ogwumike’s record is 2,737 points.
The scariest prospect for the rest of the teams in the conference is that Plum said she has increased her shooting range and shored up her right hand.
“Finishing around the rim more consistently, you know,” Plum said “There were a lot of times last year where I would get there and maybe get fouled, but I could have gotten the extra point. So that’s definitely an emphasis.”
Plum is also looking to be a better defender and rebounder.
“I’ve got to get in there. Being able to get defensive rebounds and start the transition break, that’s one of my strengths, being able to get in transition, find my team and find shooters on the wing,” Plum said.
Neighbors said Plum will do whatever it takes to improve and push the limits of her considerable natural talents.
“From practice in her freshman year to now, she knew what to do back then, but now she knows why we are doing it,” Neighbors said. “Her game continues to evolve because she’s never satisfied. It’s still a work in progress. She’s motivated every day to be her best, not worrying about being the best, but to be her best.”
UCLA guard Jordin Canada is going to be considered one of the best players in the country this year on one of the best teams. Expectations will be bigger than they’ve ever been for the Bruins dynamic guard.
Canada said Thursday that she’s honored that everyone thinks so highly of her and her team team, but it doesn’t matter to her.
“I’m not really focused on that and I’m sure my teammates aren’t either,” Canada said. “We’re more focused on the process and what it takes to be the best team that we can be. So we just take it day by day and practice by practice, game by game. It has nothing to do with wanting to be hunted.”
Canada is a junior this season, no longer considered a young player, but now a veteran and a mentor. She said she has taken sophomore Kennedy Burke under her wing.
“I’ve tried to teach her some things,” Canada said. “When she gets tired, telling her to push through, just being able to teach and letting her know that I was in the exact same position that she was in freshman and sophomore year. So just knowing that I can do that for her and build her confidence.”
Canada said the theme for this year’s team is grit.
“Last year we built a lot of chemistry, and so this year we're looking to continue that and just loving the game and getting back to having fun,” Canada said. “Sometimes teams take it a little bit too serious and they really know how to combine fun and hard work, and I think that's something that we're going to be looking forward to this season is learning how to have fun through the adversity.”
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.