Michelle Smith Preview: Pac-12 Women's Basketball claims a quarter of the spots in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen

Percy Anderson/UCLA Athletics

There was a lot of Pac-12 pride flowing Monday after the league again secured a quarter of the spots in the Sweet 16 for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

The Pac-12 has won more NCAA Tournament games than any other conference over the past three years. And with Oregon State, Oregon, UCLA and Stanford moving on to the regional semifinals, there is an opportunity to collect even more.

“This Conference is the best…elite,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team heads to Kansas City to take on Texas on Friday. “The numbers speak for themselves over the last three years: the RPI, the Final Four appearances, the number of teams making deep runs. This Conference forces you to rise up, be prepared for any style and it makes you ready to become a champion.”

Oregon coach Kelly Graves, returning to Spokane with the Ducks to face upstart Central Michigan, agreed that his team is well-prepared because of its run through the Pac-12.

“It shows the strength and depth of the Pac-12,” Graves said. “Regardless of who we play (in the NCAA Tournament), I feel confident knowing that we are prepared for any opponent or situation.”

Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said he is both “happy and not surprised” about the success of his Pac-12 compatriots.

“I think that people are understanding that, what we’ve done over these last three years, isn’t a surprise. They are seeing the quality of teams we play against and competing with on a daily basis,” Rueck said.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team heads to its 11th straight Sweet 16, simply said it’s “awesome.”

“I think our conference has always been really strong and we have had great teams, and great players that have not been recognized,” VanDerveer said. “I think this is also what happens when you get better seeds.

“If you went back historically, we have had, even in the Pac-10, we've had some really great teams and great players that maybe everyone thought it was just Stanford and nobody else, and I don't think that's ever been the case. But now there's opportunities and people are taking advantage of it.”

Let’s take a look at the Sweet 16 matchups.

#4 Stanford (24-10) vs. #1 Louisville (34-2)
Site: Lexington
History: Never faced one another.
Preview: The Cardinal and the Cardinals will clash in Lexington, less than a 90-minute drive from Louisville’s campus, so expect a loud, partisan crowd in favor of head coach Jeff Walz’s team, though the setting is also pretty familiar to Stanford. Tara VanDerveer’s team makes its third straight trip to Kentucky for a regional. Louisville, whose only two losses this season came to Florida State and top-ranked UConn, is led by junior guard Asia Durr, who has become one of the top players in the nation this season (18.5 ppg) and leads a high-powered offense. Stanford junior forward Alanna Smith is doing what she did last season and saving her best performances for last. Monday night’s 28-point, 12-rebound game was perhaps a harbinger of things to come. These two teams have much in common in terms of balance, experience in the backcourt, size and stingy defense. This one could be a chess match between two of the country’s power programs.   

#6 Oregon State (25-7) vs. #2 Baylor (33-1)
Site: Lexington
History: Oregon State 3-0, including a Sweet 16 win in 2016 in Dallas.
Preview: The Beavers, looking for their second trip to the Elite Eight in program history, have won 9 of last 10 games, the only hiccup came in the quarterfinal loss to Arizona State in the Pac-12 Tournament earlier this month. Oregon State’s upset win over Tennessee in Knoxville has been one of the talks of the tournament so far, and a tough matchup against Big 12 Champion Baylor definitely ups the ante. Baylor won its first two games of the tournament by a combined margin of 72 points. The Bears’ only loss this season came to UCLA in mid-November. The post matchup between OSU’s Marie Gulich and Baylor’s Kalani Brown will be one of the best paint battles in the tournament.

#2 Oregon (32-4) vs. #11 Central Michigan (30-4)
Site: Spokane         
History: Central Michigan leads the series 1-0, a 73-67 win in a Las Vegas Thanksgiving Tournament in 2014.
Preview: The Ducks are in the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row and facing one of the tournament’s two Cinderella teams from the MAC. The Chippewas had never won an NCAA Tournament game before opening with an upset of LSU and then the big takedown of Ohio State. Senior forward Tinara Moore had a great opening weekend, putting up 25 points in the first round against LSU and then 20 points and 10 rebounds in the second-round upset of Ohio State. She also buried consecutive 3-pointers that turned out to be game-changers. This is a homecoming trip for Oregon coach Kelly Graves after his long stint at Gonzaga in Spokane and he returns with a loaded Ducks team that opened the tournament looking like a team prepared for a Final Four run. Sabrina Ionescu added to her stardom with a triple-double in the opening round and put up 29 points in the second round against Minnesota.

#3 UCLA (26-7) vs. #2 Texas (28-6)
Site: Kansas City
History: The two teams have played 12 times, each team with six wins. The Longhorns have won two in a row, including a 72-64 loss to the Longhorns in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Preview: The Bruins make their third straight trip to the Sweet 16 and find themselves in the only region with the 1-2-3-4 seeds still alive. UCLA was dominant at home in the first two rounds, including an 86-64 win over Creighton Monday to punch the ticket to the regional semifinal against a balanced Longhorns team. Senior guard Jordin Canada is on a mission, scoring more than 20 points in six of her last eight games. Texas, making its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance, knocked out Pac-12 compatriot Arizona State to advance to the matchup against UCLA and shot better than 60 percent from the floor in its first two tournament wins. But UCLA is a tough defensive match for any team, creating turnovers and transition scoring opportunities. This will be an intriguing backcourt matchup with Canada and Japreece Dean (an Austin native), with Texas countering with Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty.

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. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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