Pac-12 Tournament Story Lines
It seems almost impossible at this point that one of the most compelling Pac-12 seasons in history would result in anything less than one of its most compelling, most competitive tournaments.
Tournament plays begins on Thursday at Seattle KeyArena for the fifth straight season and it’s worth taking a look at some of the top storylines that will play out over four days in the Emerald City.
Plum now pursues a tourney title. Washington’s Kelsey Plum has played three Pac-12 Tournaments in Seattle so far and she has yet to win one. She wants this one badly in her final collegiate season. Now that she’s got the NCAA all-time scoring record out of the way – a 57-point game against Utah on Saturday buttoned up that matter nicely – she can turn her attention to hoisting a trophy on the floor of Key Arena. In the four years that the Pac-12 Tournament has been in Seattle, the Huskies have reached the semifinals only once, in 2016. They have never played in a Pac-12 Tournament championship game. This season, Washington finished in a tie for second in the league standings, but only faced Oregon State and Stanford once in the unbalanced schedule. Those teams will loom large on the way to a title. Plum will be doing everything she can to change that, as she’s changed everything for Washington women’s basketball.
Can “bubble” teams bust into the brackets? There are two teams solidly on the NCAA bubble heading into this tournament – Oregon and Cal, who are sporting identical records at 18-12. Oregon has better resume with a 41 RPI (NCAA.com) and eight conference wins. They have the talented young tandem of Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu, and a late-season win over UCLA. Cal is in a more difficult position. The Bears won six conference games and have an RPI of 57 (NCAA.com). The Bears are going to need a long run in this tournament to boost their chances to make the tournament field. Of course, a tournament win gets them an automatic bid.
Can Oregon State finish the job? The Beavers joined Stanford as the only teams in conference history to win or share the conference title in three straight seasons. And the Beavers are the defending champs in Seattle. This is a team that was picked to finish fifth before the season began as many wondered how they would move forward without stars Ruth Hamblin and Jamie Weisner. But it turns out that Scott Rueck’s team wasn’t rebuilding so much as reloading. Sydney Wiese led the team as she’s done since she was a freshman. Gabrielle Hanson was a defensive tone-setter, Marie Gulich filled Hamblin’s shoes ably and freshman Mikayla Pivec turned into a perimeter shooting threat. The Beavers play some of the best defense in the county, have beaten Stanford (twice), UCLA, Washington and Arizona State and looked primed to win another title.
Which player will have a breakout tournament? With all of the marquee talent in the league, is there a possibility that a player whose name might not find its way on to an all-conference list will be the one to turn a tide or make a difference in a game? Could a player like Cal freshman Jaelyn Brown, who put up a career-high 21 against Oregon State on Sunday, or UCLA’s Kennedy Burke, who had 16 points and nine rebounds against Arizona State, or Colorado’s Alexis Robinson, who is averaging 11.0 points a game for the Buffaloes, be the one who sends a team to a big upset or an unlikely appearance in the next round?
Is there a surprise in the wings? Would it really be a surprise if fourth-seeded UCLA or fifth-seeded Arizona State won the title? Statistically? Yes. Realistically, given the competitiveness of this conference? No. The No. 1 seed has won this tournament 11 times in 15 years. The No. 3 seed has won four times and a No. 5 seed – USC in 2014 – has won once. No seed lower than a No. 5 has ever appeared in the title game. And a No. 2 seed has never won this tournament.
Oregon State has beaten Stanford. Stanford beat Washington and UCLA. UCLA beat Stanford and Washington. Washington beat UCLA. It’s anybody’s game.
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.