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Michelle Smith feature: Team-by-team preview as Conference play begins

Dec 27, 2017

We have arrived at the start of the Pac-12 season.

After an impressive non-conference in which all but two teams posted winning records and eight teams collected at least nine victories, the time for head-to-head competition in the nation’s toughest conference has come.

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

Preseason Prediction: 11th
Non-conference record: 4-7
Best win: 83-44 win over New Mexico State

The Wildcats, who lost six in a row before rallying to win two of their three final non-conference games, continue to rebuild under second-year head coach Adia Barnes continues. Senior guard JaLea Bennett, the league’s fifth-leading scorer, has led the way for Arizona with four 20-point games so far this season and is setting the scoring pace at 16.5 points a game. Freshman Marlee Kyles is the other player averaging double-figures at 10.6 ppg. Freshman forward Sam Thomas is averaging 9.6 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. The Wildcats, who lack depth, with six players getting the vast majority of the minutes, have struggled to score consistently, averaging 68.4 points a game, ranking them 11th in the league.

“We need people to step up, leadership-wise,” Wildcat coach Adia Barnes said after the final non-conference game.

Preseason Prediction: 6th
Non-conference record: 9-3
Best win: 89-43 over Arkansas on Dec. 21

The Sun Devils, who come into conference play with five wins in the last six games, have taken their place once again as one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. Matching Oregon State, ASU is allowing opponents at 52.9 points a game, which puts them among the national leaders. Kianna Ibis leads ASU in scoring at 12.1 points a game. Junior guard Courtney Ekmark enters Pac-12 play coming off a school-record performance against Arkansas with seven 3-pointers. Sophomore forward Jamie Ruden is also surging of late, with a combined 33 points in her past two games.

This is what we need going into Pac-12s. We need people taking turns. It is great to see our offensive roles develop and grow, along with seeing them have confidence," said ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne. 

Preseason Prediction: 5th
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: 62-52 at Kentucky on Dec. 21

The Bears come into conference play on a six-game winning streak, and coming off their biggest win of the non-conference, a 62-52 win over SEC power Kentucky on the road in Lexington. All-American candidate Kristine Anigwe is leading the Bears at 17.0 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. Sophomore Asha Thomas is averaging 11.1 points and 4.8 assists per game. Penina Davidson has scored in double figures in three of the last four games. Meanwhile, freshman Kianna Smith continues to come on strong with three straight games in double figures and eight consecutive games with five or more assists. The Bears are looking for a strong start to the Pac-12 after two years of struggles in conference play.

“I like where we are,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “It will be interesting to see how we handle the rigors of conference. We are about to get tested to see if we are deeper, more mentally tough, more complete than we have been. I think we are.”

Preseason Prediction: 10th
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: 67-61 win at home against Miami

Colorado put together a strong non-conference resume with the help of one of the conference’s most promising young players. The Buffaloes have a breakout star in freshman Annika Jank, who has been named the conference freshman of the week three times thus far and is averaging 13.7 points per game. Jank’s performance has helped to propel Colorado to averaging 80.2 points a game. Jank is a strong complement to the veteran leadership of junior guard Kennedy Leonard, who ranks seventh in the league in scoring at 15.5 points per game and No. 7 in the country in assists (7.0 per game). The Buffs are also playing some of the best defense in the Pac-12, allowing opponents 35.4 shooting from the floor.

"(The Pac-12) is the best conference in the country and every single night you're going to face a tough opponent. That's why we play teams from the ACC, play teams on the road, play athletic teams, big teams, really disciplined teams,” said Colorado coach JR Payne. “We've tried to create a schedule that would hopefully prepare us for Pac-12 play. We've done a lot of really good things. There are areas where we can improve, but we're excited and ready to see where we are when we step into conference play."

Preseason Prediction: Tie-2nd
Non-conference record: 11-2
Best win: 84-62 win over Texas A&M on Dec. 21 in Las Vegas

The Ducks are putting themselves in a great position to challenge for the conference title after a stellar non-conference season. Oregon is setting the pace for the conference in scoring heading into Pac-12 play, averaging 88.8 points a game (also No. 5 in the nation), an accomplishment being led by sophomore Player of the Year candidate Sabrina Ionescu, who has tied the NCAA triple-doubles record early in her sophomore season, with seven for her career. Ionescu, who ranks fourth nationally in assists per game (7.9), is one of five Oregon players averaging double figures over the first 13 games of the season. Fellow sophomore Ruthy Hebard is averaging 15.9 points and 8.5 rebounds. Ionescu and Lexi Bando are among the top 3-point shooters in the country.

“I like how we are playing offensively. We are sharing the ball, getting good shots and are shooting ball well in all areas,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves. “We’ve been getting solid contributions from multiple players so teams haven't been able to key on just one or two people. We have shown flashes of good defense, but we need to be more consistent defensively and on the boards.”

Preseason Prediction: 4th
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: 61-47 win at UC Davis on Dec. 20

The Beavers, who many people thought would need some time to recover from the graduation of point guard Sydney Wiese, are doing what they do best, playing stifling defense and making life difficult on their opponents. Oregon State, which comes into conference play on a six-game win streak, allowed its opponents 52.9 points a game, and have held seven opponents to under 30 percent shooting. OSU is led by senior Marie Gulich, who has three double-doubles in her last four games. The Beavers are also excelling on offense, ranking second in the league in scoring at 82.2 points per game. Mikayla Pivec, playing point guard for the first time since seventh grade, is shooting 58.7 percent from the floor. Oregon State’s most telling result was a 72-67 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame at Gil Coliseum in November.

“Our team has grown a lot through the non-conference schedule. We have seen many different styles of play that I believe have prepared us well," said Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck. "I like the way we have competed and responded to adversity. The most exciting part to me is how much room we still have to grow. They have embraced the challenges and we look forward to getting started in Pac-12 play.”

Preseason Prediction: Tie-2nd
Non-conference record: 6-6
Best win: 74-53 win over Belmont in Las Vegas on Nov. 24

The young Cardinal played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation with five games against top 10 teams and didn’t win any of them. It hasn’t been a very Stanford-like start for a variety of reasons, chief among them, a foot injury to leading scorer Brittany McPhee that kept her off the floor for the better part of 12 games. The good news is that McPhee didn’t need time to shake off the rust, if her 27-point effort against Tennessee last week was any indication. But the Cardinal, who rank last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, can’t just be all McPhee, all the time. Alanna Smith has had a roller-coaster start, but has scored in double figures in eight games with four double-doubles.

“We need our tough schedule to pay off for us,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “But it only pays off if we build on it. Don't get frustrated. Get mad and go to work. We are looking up at people right now. We need people to look up at where we need to be and embrace that challenge." 

Preseason Prediction: 1st
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: 82-68 win over Baylor on Nov. 18

The Bruins, the preseason title favorites, posted arguably the biggest win of the non-conference with their victory over Baylor in November and they closed the non-conference schedule with their best defensive performance (holding Fordham to 30 points on the road) since 1980. UCLA finds itself near the middle of the conference in both offensive and defensive categories, with room from growth. The Bruins’ fortunes are built around their senior stars, the inside-out combination of All-American prospects Jordin Canada and Monique Billings, who are averaging more than 30 points a game together. Sophomore Kennedy Burke is the other scorer in double figures at 11.5 points a game. Canada is one her way to one of the most decorated careers in Pac-12 history, with more than 1,700 points and 600 assists. Canada currently ranks fifth all-time in career assists. The first weekend of the season brings an immediate measuring stick, two road games against Stanford and Cal.

“I like our team and I like our trajectory,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “We aren’t playing the best basketball in the conference right now, but I definitely think we have the potential to grow into that come February/March. We have great talent pieces, and we are playing more and more together. On court teamwork and synergy along with playing to our identity as a team will be the key factors for us.”

Preseason Prediction: 8th
Non-conference record: 10-1
Best win: 58-46 win over Purdue on Nov. 24

The Women of Troy finished the non-conference season with the best record in the conference, but even coach Mark Trakh will admit the biggest challenges are still to come. Senior post Kristen Simon is the conference’s leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. USC is generating offense from defense, with two players, junior guard Aliyah Mazyck and sophomore guard Minyon Moore among the league leaders in steals. Mazyck is also leading the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting with 35 treys on the season.

“We will find out what happens when we get to the tough part of our schedule and what happens if we lose two or three games,” USC coach MarkTrakh said. “We will have to figure out how to stay together, dust yourself off and get ready for the next game. That’s your responsibility as a player, and a coach. We're playing with energy and passion. Let’s see if we can continue that.”

Preseason Prediction: 9th
Non-conference record: 9-2
Best win: 81-68 win over Purdue on Nov. 20

It was a great non-conference campaign for the Utes, who finished out the first chapter of the season with a 7-0 record on their home floor. Utah also outscored its opponents by an average of 21 points a game, but the degree of difficulty is about to skyrocket. The Utes’ strength is in its size, with nine players 6-foot or taller and they are taking advantage, out-rebounding opponents by an average of 11 per game. Senior center Emily Potter (13.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) is a dominant force inside, and has 18 blocks this season, moving her to No. 5 all-time in Pac-12 history. But Utah is also getting great contributions from Megan Huff and Daneesha Provo, who are combining for more than 25 points a game. Huff, the junior forward, has been Utah’s leading scorer in five games this season, a team-best. Provo has scored in double figures in seven games.

"I think last year heading into Pac-12 play, we had a false sense of security," said Utes head coach Lynne Roberts said. "We've beat some good teams this year and so I think this team has a real sense of their identity, and last year I don't think I could have said that. I get the sense that this team wants to keep getting better." 

Preseason Prediction: 12th
Non-conference record: 6-5
Best win: 80-72 win over BYU on Nov. 15

The Huskies, who have won four of six heading into the conference opener at Oregon State, have had more than their share of adversity to start this season with injuries and retirements to key players, but under first-year head coach Jody Wynn, Washington rallied to a winning non-conference record for the eighth straight season. Sophomore guard Amber Melgoza is rallying, with 51 points in her last two games before the start of Pac-12 play. Melgoza has scored in double figures in five straight games, averaging 19.7 points a game over that stretch. Wynn is clearly still trying to figure out what works best for her team, with all 10 players on her roster getting at least one start this season.

Washington leads the Pac-12 in turnovers forced a 20 per game and ranks second in steals at 10.7 per game.

"We break the season in two different seasons and this was season number one,” Washington coach Jody Wynn said. “To finish 6-5 is really outstanding for our women. We gained valuable experience playing tough teams on the road, we won a big-time game at home with players who have not had to perform under the pressure of late-game situations and overtime.”

Preseason Prediction: 7th
Non-conference record: 7-5
Best win: 73-61 over Nebraska on Dec. 18

The Cougars have won six of their last seven games heading into Pac-12 play and are playing with confidence. It certainly helps that a Cougars team decimated by injuries a season ago is now healthy and ready to compete. Redshirt sophomore Borislava Hristova ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring at 16.9 points a game, and has four 20-point ames this season. Junior post Louise Brown has collected three double-doubles in the last five games and the Cougars are 6-1 when senior guard Pinelopi Pavlopoulou is on the floor.

We have taken on a Road Warrior persona with several key wins away from Pullman,” said Cougars coach June Daugherty. “We are excited to step into conference play with a healthy squad.”

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.