Michelle Smith Feature: Previewing the Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament

@UCLAWBB

The 17th Pac-12 Tournament tips off at KeyArena on Thursday night and considering the drama of the conference regular-season, it promises to be one of the most hotly contested tournaments in the country.

With projections that the Pac-12 could get as many as seven teams into the NCAA Tournament brackets, there are plenty of teams with a lot to play for.

Let’s examine some of the biggest storylines heading Northwest for the weekend. We know this for sure, what happens in Seattle has implications that could last into early April.

Can Oregon finish the job? The Ducks have won their first outright conference regular-season title since 1999-2000. They set a program record with 16 conference wins. They have already won more games (27) than any season in program history. The appropriate finish for the Ducks would seem to be a first-ever Pac-12 Tournament title. Oregon, a top 4 seed for only the second time, has never played in the championship game of the 17-year history of the conference postseason tournament, three times eliminated in the semifinals, including last season at the hands of Stanford. But the Ducks come in confident and hungry to do something they’ve never done – win a Pac-12 Tournament title – on the way to what is expected to be a long NCAA Tournament run.

Can UCLA seniors tack on a title? Jordin Canada and Monique Billings have had a championship in their sights since they came to Westwood as part of one of the best recruiting classes in program history. UCLA has been the preseason pick the past two seasons to win the conference title, but the Bruins have come up just short. Canada and Billings have led teams that have been contenders, they have been highly ranked. Both have added to the record books at UCLA and in the Pac-12 in their distinguished four-year careers. Now comes their last shot at a championship in the Pac-12 Tournament. UCLA won its lone conference tournament title in 2006 in San Jose against Stanford and reached the title game in 2010, 2013 and 2016 without winning again. The Bruins are plenty motivated to break that pattern here.

Who will shake up the bracket? Could it be a 9-9 USC team that has beaten Oregon State and Arizona State, and pushed Stanford and Oregon to the limit during the regular season? Could it be a Cal team that celebrated its upset of Stanford last week in Berkeley? What about Utah, who won two in a row and then took both USC and UCLA to overtime at home this weekend to close out the regular season with a lot to feel good about? These teams all seem best primed to deliver a shock to the seeds in Seattle this week.

Who’s on the bubble? The team that appears to be sitting more squarely on the NCAA bubble is USC. The Women of Troy, who go into this tournament as the No. 7 seed and open up Thursday against 10th seeded Washington State, have 19 wins on the season, and have an RPI of No. 46. All of that would seem to put USC, playing in the first season of Mark Trakh’s return to Los Angeles, in strong tournament position. But the Women of Troy could probably use a win or two in the Pac-12 Tournament to nail down their spot. Moving into the second round against a Stanford team that USC has battled in two tough games this season and getting a win would be an undeniable statement.

Who’s ready to host? Hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament is a coveted position. The top 16 seeds in the NCAA bracket get that opportunity and the Pac-12 Tournament is going to figure big in those decisions. Oregon State finished the regular season with a big win at Arizona State, and the Beavers, whose run of straight regular-season conference titles ended at three this week, come to Seattle looking to improve their chances to earn a top 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, to have the opportunity to host first- and second-round games in Corvallis for the fourth-straight season. The Beavers’ RPI has improved to No. 41 nationally. And then there’s Stanford. After a shaky non-conference season and nine games without leading scorer Brittany McPhee, Stanford course-corrected to finish second in the Pac-12 with wins over Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State. The Cardinal are positioned, with their No. 15 RPI, to earn one of the top four seeds and to host first- and second-rounds for the sixth time in the last eight seasons.

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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