Pac-12 Feature: Women's Basketball Conference Preview

What is there to say about this extraordinary start to the Pac-12 women’s basketball season that the numbers don’t say by themselves?

A dozen teams with a combined record of 115-20 heading into the start of conference play. 11 of 12 teams with a winning record. Seven teams have are nationally ranked this season, a conference record – two in the top 10, another handful receiving votes.

History has already been made, with Washington’s Kelsey Plum taking over the conference scoring career record with most of her senior season still in front of her, and Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese assuming the Pac-12’s all-time 3-point shooting record.

The table is set for a remarkable conference race, that started with No. 9 Washington taking on Washington State and continuing into the New Year’s weekend.

Here is a team-by-team look at the Pac-12:

ARIZONA
Preseason Prediction: 12th
Non-conference record: 8-2
Best win: New Mexico State on Dec. 4

At 8-2, the Wildcats are off to a strong start under first-year head coach (and Arizona alum) Adia Barnes. Senior LaBrittney Jones leads Arizona at 15.1 points per game, putting her among the conference’s top scorers. Depth is key for Arizona, which has a 6-1 record this season when its bench outscores the opposition. The Wildcats, who rank 11th in scoring offense in the conference, will open the conference schedule with four of six at home where UA has posted a 5-1 record in Tucson so far.

ARIZONA STATE
Preseason Prediction: Fourth
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: Florida on Dec. 4

The 18th-ranked Sun Devils have won seven in a row heading into the Pac-12 schedule and are doing what they do best, playing stellar, consistent defense. The Sun Devils rank No. 2 in the conference in scoring defense allowing opponents 53.2 points per game. Arizona State’s most impressive stretch so far was a road trip that included back-to-back wins at Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Senior forward Sophie Brunner has scored in double-figures in eight games this season and ASU has multiple offensive options, including sophomore forward Kiana Ibis, who has scored in double figures in three of the last five games. Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne said after her team’s non-conference finale win against Holy Cross that it will be defense that keeps her teams in games when the offensive isn’t clicking. Pretty hard to argue.

CALIFORNIA
Preseason Prediction: Sixth
Non-conference record: 12-0
Best win: No. 20 Oklahoma in Las Vegas on Dec. 20

The Bears are off to the best start in school history and have matched the second-longest winning streak in program history, a surge led by one of the country’s best players, post Kristine Anigwe. Anigwe, the stellar sophomore, already has claim to the highest single-game scoring effort in Division I so far, putting up 50 points against Sacramento State, also tying the Pac-12 record. And she is coming off back-to-back 30-point, 15-rebound performances in Las Vegas heading into the Pac-12 schedule. Senior Courtney Range and junior Mikayla Cowling are added veteran presence and needed scoring, combining to score nearly 23 points a game. Cal has proven to be an potent offensive team, averaging more than 81 points a game, a trend that should serve them well in conference play.

COLORADO
Preseason Prediction: 11th
Non-conference record: 10-1
Best win: Kentucky on Nov. 19

The Buffaloes are the surprise team of the early season with a 12-0 mark. Colorado, which leads the nation in steals at 14.8 per game, has also proven to be one of the best offensive teams in the Pac-12, ranking second in scoring behind Washington. Sophomore Kennedy Leonard leads the way, averaging 19.1 point per game, which ranks her third in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes will look to bounce back after an upset loss at the hands of Wyoming on December 21 for their only blemish in non-conference play.

OREGON
Preseason Prediction: Seventh
Non-conference record: 11-2
Best win: Michigan State on Nov. 22

The Ducks are undeniably and up-and-coming team, with some of the top young talent in the nation in guard Sabrina Ionescu and 6-4 forward Ruthie Hebard from Alaska, who is shooting 80 percent from the floor. Lexi Bando has hit 34 3-pointers thus far, putting her among the league leaders, and the Ducks are prepared to make some noise after last year’s strong finish. Ducks coach Kelly Graves stressed the importance of playing better defense as Pac-12 play begins, particularly on the perimeter.

OREGON STATE
Preseason Prediction: Fifth
Non-conference record: 10-1
Best win: Oklahoma State on Dec. 21

The defending champions head into conference play as one of the nation’s stingiest defensive teams, allowing opponents to shoot under 33 percent a game. No surprise that senior guard Sydney Wiese is leading the way offensively, averaging 16.3 points per game. She is among the nation’s elite players being considered for collegiate basketball’s highest postseason honors.

STANFORD
Preseason Prediction: Second
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: No. 8 Texas on Nov. 14

The Cardinal are 9-2, have an experienced core and are relying on strong defense to win. Stanford’s two losses so far this season have come against Gonzaga and Tennessee. Brittney McPhee has emerged as a go-to scorer for the Cardinal with Erica McCall, who has 22 double-doubles in the last 45 games dating back to last season, leading the way in the paint. The Cardinal rebounded from a tough road loss at Tennessee to beat George Washington in their non-conference finale. Tara VanDerveer is 11 wins away from 1,000 in her career, which will put her only in the company of Pat Summitt as women’s coaches with 1,000 wins.

UCLA
Preseason Prediction: First
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: Michigan on Dec. 11

The Bruins have maintained a top-10 ranking with just two losses so far against fellow top-10 teams Baylor and South Carolina. Jordin Canada has cemented her place as one of the best guards in the country and she is being complemented by the play of Monique Billings. Canada ranks fourth in the league in scoring (17.6 ppg) and Billings ranks sixth at 17.0 ppg. UCLA

USC
Preseason Prediction: Ninth
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: Texas A&M on Nov. 30

The Women of Troy are off to a strong start thanks to a balanced offense that has seen five different players finish as the team’s leading scorer over the first 11 games. Perhaps the best barometer of how strong the USC team is coming is a four-point loss to No. 5 Mississippi State on December 18. Junior forward Kristen Simon is averaging a double-double at 15.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Freshman Minyon Moore is already making her presence felt, averaging 12.4 points and 5.3 assists per game.

UTAH
Preseason Prediction: Eighth
Non-conference record: 11-0
Best win: at BYU on Dec. 10

The Utes are off to a perfect start thanks to the potent combination of great defense and the play of senior Emily Potter. The redshirt junior reached the 1,000-point in her career last week and has six double-doubles so far on the season. Potter ranks second in the Pac-12 in rebounding (10.8 per game). Senior wing Paige Crozon has scored in double figures in six straight games as well. Utes coach Lynne Roberts said that her team needs to upgrade its play off the bench in order to maintain their momentum going into conference play.

WASHINGTON
Preseason Prediction: Third
Non-conference record: 12-1
Best win: Missouri on Nov. 17

The Huskies are ranked among the Top 10 nationally for the first time in 18 years. The only blemish on the Huskies record is a loss at Notre Dame in the Preseason NIT title game. But the rest of the way, Washington is doing what it does best, relying on the considerable talents of seniors Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor. Plum is the national scoring leader at 30.2 points per game. Osahor is averaging a double-double and leads the nation in rebounding at 14.2 rebounds per game.

WASHINGTON STATE
Preseason Prediction: 10th
Non-conference record: 5-6
Best win: Nebraska on November 25

The Cougars open the Pac-12 schedule with four-straight road games, including the opener in Seattle against Washington. The only team in the conference without a .500 record, the Cougars played one of the most challenging schedules in the leagued and closed the non-conference slate with a two-point loss to No. 18 Kentucky. Washington State is led by sophomore Borislava Hristova, but the Cougars have a balanced offense, with eight players averaging at least 6.1 points a game. Shoring up the defense will be key for the Cougars, who currently rank last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, giving up more than 67 points per game.

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