Pac-12 women's basketball: 12 women to watch

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Last year, the Pac-12 sent two teams to the NCAA women's basketball tournament, one of which advanced all the way to the Final Four (Stanford). The conference welcomed Linda Lappe's Colorado Buffaloes and Anthony Levrets' Utah Utes with open arms, while a couple of programs made marked improvements under head coaches in their first or second year at the school (Washington and Oregon State).

What does this season have in store? Some talented players, for starters. Although the Pac-12 said goodbye to the likes of WNBA Draft No. 1 pick Nneka Ogwumike, Regina Rogers and Jacki Gemelos, there is a host of other stars to keep your eye on for the upcoming 2012-13 season. Here are 12 women to watch:

1. Davellyn Whyte (Arizona)
The Pac-12’s leading returning scorer trailed only N. Ogwumike in points per game last year. The three-time all-Pac-12 selection can shoot her team back into games in a hurry, and never shies away from big moments. In Arizona’s Pac-12 Tournament first round game last year, Whyte scored five straight points with her team down seven late to UCLA to help steer an Arizona comeback and upset victory over the Bruins.

2. Micaela Pickens (Arizona State)
As long as Charli Turner Thorne has been in Tempe, defense has been the name of Arizona State’s game. No returning player embodies that spirit better than Pickens, who led the team in steals and finished second on the team in blocks and third in rebounding -- all as a 5-foot, 8-inch guard. The Sun Devils held opponents to 53 points per game a year ago thanks to a harassing pressure defense that wears out most teams they play.

3. Gennifer Brandon (Cal)
In 2011-12, Brandon broke the school record with 346 rebounds in a season, and her 24 rebounds in a single game last December were the second most of any player in the NCAA all year. That double dozen didn’t come against some weak opponent, either, just then-undefeated Ohio State, which would go on to the NCAA tournament. Brandon also scored 24 points in that game, showing a knack for putting the biscuit in the basket. She has a very effective mid-range game with a high-arcing 18-footer.

[Related: Women's hoop schedule announced]

4. Chucky Jeffery (Colorado)
Jeffery holds the distinction of being honored by multiple leagues: She was the Big 12 Freshman of the Week in January, 2010 and was named to the All-Pac-12 team last year after averaging 15.5 points, 8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.3 steals per game, all totals that led the Buffaloes. She is another player that will go into “put the team on my back” mode and deliver clutch buckets, most notably hitting the game-winner against Arizona on the road on national television last year.

5. Liz Brenner (Oregon)
Don’t worry if you don’t see Liz Brenner on the court for Paul Westhead until mid-late December; she’ll be busy registering kills and blocks for the U of O volleyball team. And forgive her if she doesn’t do off-season training with Ariel Thomas and Lexi Peterson; she might be preoccupied on the softball diamond. That’s right, the sophomore Brenner was a three-sport athlete for the Ducks as a freshman. Any room for her on the track and field team, Robert Johnson? She was also first-team all-state in the shot put and javelin back in high school... While Brenner might not play all three again this year, she will be back to provide the Ducks with a solid low-post presence on the hardwood. Her best performance for the basketball team was a 15-point, 11-rebound effort in a win against UCLA.

6. Ali Gibson (Oregon State)
You want threes? Ali Gibson’s got ‘em. Her 56 treys and 35 percent accuracy from downtown led the team (technically, Jenna Dixon was 38 percent from deep, but she only made six threes all season, so Gibson gets the edge by sample size). The 2011-12 Pac-12 All-Frosh and All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention selection saved her best for her school’s biggest rival, dropping in a career-high 23 and the go-ahead three-point basket against Oregon last January.

7. Chiney Ogwumike (Stanford)
Now that her sister Nneka has graduated and moved on to the WNBA, we’ll get to see Chiney assume a bigger leadership role. All signs point to that being a good thing for the Cardinal, as the younger Ogwumike averaged a double-double last season (15 ppg, 10.1 rpg). She showed an improved range from the floor as the 2011-12 campaign progressed, and if the trajectory of Nneka’s career is any indication, the WBCA All-American Chiney could very well be hitting some threes in the near future.

[Related: Ogwumike named to Wade watch list]

8. Markel Walker (UCLA)
You can tell by her stats (14.9 ppg, 11 rpg) a year ago that Walker will be a huge key to any success UCLA has this season under coach Cori Close, but even her numbers don’t do her justice. The Philadelphia native has arguably the silkiest game in the conference. She can get to the hoop at will, beat you with the shake-and-bake or simply hit a step back in your face. The Bruins had their fair share of injuries this year, but a healthy 2012-13 UCLA team should be very competitive in the Pac-12, especially because of this Broad Street Bully.

9. Ariya Crook (USC)
Crook's 2011-12 season statistics won’t blow you away, but she was behind veterans Ashley Corral and Briana Gilbreath in the rotation. Well, those two have graduated now, and Crook should see a lot more time on the floor for Michael Cooper this year. Crook had a breakout performance in perhaps the Pac-12 women’s basketball game of the year in 2011-12. She scored all of USC’s 11 points in the overtime period (which included the game-winning layup) of the Trojans’ 75-74 OT victory at Cal. Now a sophomore, Crook should be more even more effective with more time on the floor.

10. Michelle Plouffe (Utah)
The versatile Plouffe is back for a third campaign after playing in the 2012 London Olympics for Team Canada. Last season, the Edmonton native led the Utes in scoring and blocks, and was second on the team in rebounding, steals, assists and three-pointers made. Like Colorado's Jeffery, she also has the distinction of earning league honors from two different conferences, as Utah played in the Mountain West her freshman year. If that last name sounds familiar to you, it could be because her older sister Andrea Plouffe hooped at U-Dub.

[Related: Oregon State teammates take you behind the scenes]

11. Jazmine Davis (Washington)
The reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year leads an up-and-coming Husky squad that made a deep run in last year’s WNIT. Davis set a UW freshman record for points scored in a season, as well as knocking down the most three-pointers by a Washington rookie. Her range was on display in the Pac-12 tournament, where the San Jose, Calif., native came off the bench to nail seven three-pointers in the first half of the Huskies' first-round game against Oregon. And don't be fooled into thinking her game is soft because she shoots a lot of threes; Davis has a black belt in karate.

12. Ireti Amojo (Washington State)
The Cougars were off to a solid 7-6 start against a very tough schedule last year before Amojo, who would end up leading the team in scoring average, went down with a season-ending injury. Without Amojo, Washington State would go just 6-14 the rest of the way. She’s an important piece to the puzzle mainly because she is very accurate from downtown, nailing half of her 42 three-point field goal attempts last year. While the Cougars got hot at the end of the year and advanced to the Pac-12 semifinals, they will certainly need a healthy Amojo to build off that momentum.

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