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Michelle Smith Feature: California and Utah shine early in Conference play

Jan 24, 2018

Breaking old habits might be hard, but its working out pretty well so far for both California and Utah women’s basketball programs.

Over the past two years, both the Bears and the Utes came into conference play with strong non-conference records only to stumble through the Pac-12 schedule.

Team/Year Non-conference Conference
Cal 15-16 9-2 4-14
Cal 16-17 12-0 6-12
Utah 15-16 8-3 8-10
Utah 16-17 11-1 5-13

But this year, the struggles of old have turned into early successes.

Both the No. 23 Bears and the Utes are 5-3, tied for third place in the conference standings heading into the halfway weekend of the conference schedule.

Cal has held on to its national ranking since the start of the season and is still looking for its first win against a ranked opponent this season. The Bears will get another chance on Sunday against No. 25 Arizona State.

“It feels very different this year, we are taking care of business,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “We have won when things are not pretty and when they haven’t gone our way. Asha (Thomas) misses a game, and we win, Kristine (Anigwe) gets in foul trouble and we win, we have bouts of turning the ball over and we win. We are winning when things aren’t neat and clean and pretty.”

Cal dropped two of their first three Pac-12 games, but have won four of their next five. Gottlieb said her Bears have “a different look in their eye.”

“I know that sounds cliché,” Gottlieb said. “But this is a group that’s been on the other side of things. They understand no one gives you a win.”

The Bears are looking for the “good opportunities” still in front of them, including games against Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford (twice) as opportunities to bolster their resume and put themselves in position for a strong NCAA berth, perhaps even a host seed.
“We have a chance to have a really special year,” Gottlieb said. “In this conference, getting good solid wins is hard enough. If we can take advantage of some of the opportunities in front of us, it could catapult us to the next level.”

The Utes are finding success on the road, with a pair of road sweeps already in conference play.

“We have some added depth and talent,” said Utes coach Lynne Roberts, in her third season. “Other people can score and defend and take the load off of Emily.”

Utah, led by senior post Emily Potter, upset the Sun Devils on Friday and have matched their conference win total for all of last season through eight games. But the toughest trip in the Pac-12 is still to come with Utah facing Oregon State on Friday and first-place Oregon on Sunday.

Freshman Tori Williams was named the conference freshman of the week after the Utes’ road sweep of the Arizona schools. She was the Utes’ first freshman of the week selection since 2014.

Williams has scored in double figures in three of the last four games.

Roberts said she believes a culture has taken hold in her third season, something that takes time to develop.

“In my experience, it’s always the third seasons where the culture starts to set in and the players and team buy-in is genuine,” Roberts said.

Roberts said she is proud of the way her team has played thus far.

 “We had five conference wins last season and now we have matched that and we aren't even half way through,” Roberts said. “We know it isn't going to get any easier when Oregon State and Oregon come to Salt Lake City this weekend."

Hitting the halfway point

The Pac-12 season will make the turn toward the home stretch after the upcoming games this weekend and with eight teams posting at least 13 wins, the conference is looking to be in strong NCAA position.

The NCAA released its first seeding preview last week, with Oregon and UCLA among the top 16 seeds and the Ducks currently in line for a No. 1 seed.

Seeing seven teams in the NCAA brackets is a realistic scenario for the conference at this point, that grouping including Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Utah and Arizona State.

“I think if the NCAA tournament started today, we would get seven teams, maybe eight,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “USC has a chance as well, I think.”

Four Pac-12 teams have RPIs that rank in the top 25 (Oregon, UCLA, Cal and Stanford). Next up are Arizona State at No. 32, Oregon State at 52, USC at 54 and Utah at No. 62.

USC has single-digit losses to Stanford (twice), Cal and Oregon and wins over Utah and Oregon State. The Women of Troy travel to take on Washington State and Washington before rivalry weekend against UCLA with a chance to breakthrough with some key wins.

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.