Michelle Smith Feature: Pac-12 Women's Basketball teams head to NCAA Tournament
The brackets are out. The stories, however, have yet to be written.
After a bruising, competitive Pac-12 season, six teams reached the promised land of college basketball with inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field. Three Pac-12 teams will open the tournament on their home floors. Three others will have long journeys and a steep climb through some of the country’s best teams to get to Columbus for a Final Four.
Only twice in the last decade has there been a Final Four without a team from the Pac-12.
Who has a shot to go this time? Let’s break it down team-by-team.
No. 2 Oregon (30-4)
First-round matchup: vs. No 15 Seattle University (18-14) in Eugene.
The road ahead: The Ducks, following up on their first-ever Pac-12 Tournament championship, earned the highest seed in school history and host their first NCAA Tournament games on their home floor since 2000. Getting two wins at Matthew Knight Arena - including a possible second-round matchup between the winner of Green Bay and Minnesota - would send the Ducks to Spokane, which is familiar territory for head coach Kelly Graves, who coached at Gonzaga from 2000-2014 and led the Zags to an Elite Eight appearance at Spokane Arena in 2011.
Prospects: The Ducks are going to face the burden of expectations this season in a way they didn’t a year ago when they shocked the country by racing to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed. Sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu has become a national name and Oregon has become a fashionable Final Four pick. But they have the versatility, and offensive firepower to go far.
No. 3 UCLA (24-7)
Region: Kansas City
First-round matchup: vs. No. 14 seed American (26-6) at UCLA.
The road ahead: The Bruins, hosting NCAA games for the third straight year at Pauley Pavilion, have to like where they are positioned. Two potential games at home, including a first-ever matchup against American in the opening round. UCLA could face off against No. 2 seed Texas, the team that ousted them from the tournament two years ago, in a Sweet 16 matchup in Kansas City. Unless Pac-12 compatriot Arizona State can knock the Longhorns off first.
Prospects: This is the moment that UCLA seniors Jordin Canada and Monique Billings have been waiting for. The Bruins have athleticism, speed and experience. They have been to two Sweet 16s in a row. They want more. And they won’t accept anything less than a sustained NCAA run for their final college games.
No. 4 Stanford (22-10)
First-round matchup: vs. No. 13 Gonzaga (27-5) at Maples Pavilion.
The road ahead: The Cardinal are happy to get to play at home, but know their first-round game is no picnic against the Zags, a perennial West Coast power with a star player in junior forward Jill Barta. But a first-round win could earn the Cardinal a date against a dangerous Missouri team that features star junior guard Sophie Cunningham. Stanford is positioned to move on to Lexington for the third year in a row, should they advance and a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Louisville, which will be the de-facto host team in its home state.
Prospects: Alanna Smith, Kaylee Johnson, Marta Snizek and Brittany McPhee have Final Four experience. They’d like to have it again. The Cardinal will have to be at their best on both sides of the ball, with young players like Kianna Williams and Nadia Fingall contributing big, to have any chance get to Columbus.
No. 6 Oregon State (23-7)
First-round matchup: vs. No. 11 Western Kentucky (24-8) in Knoxville, Tenn.
The road ahead: Back in the brackets for the fifth year in a row, the Beavers were hoping for an opportunity to host games in Corvallis, as they have done the previous three seasons, but a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 Tournament knocked Oregon State into a long trip to Tennessee for the first weekend of the tournament. A first-round win against a Western Kentucky team that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 18 years would put Oregon State up against host Tennessee in the second round. That could put No. 2 seed Baylor in the Beavers’ crosshairs in the Sweet 16.
Prospects: A long run for Oregon State depends on strong 3-point shooting of Kat Tudor, the dominance of senior center Marie Gulich, one of the best post players in the tournament, and the stout defense that has become the program’s trademark under Scott Rueck.
Arizona State (21-12)
Region: Kansas City
First-round matchup: vs. No. 10 Nebraska (21-10) in Austin, Texas.
The road ahead: If the Sun Devils, who matched a school-record with its fifth straight NCAA appearance, can beat the lower-seeded Huskers, a team that looked as if it might not get into the tournament, and win a first-round game for the fourth year in a row, they will move on to face the second-seeded Texas Longhorns on UT's home floor. The Nebraska game should be special for ASU leading scorer Kiana Ibis, who is a Nebraska native.
Prospects: Arizona State has been forced to move forward without one of its top scorers, guard Sabrina Haynes, who sustained an ACL injury last month. This team without seniors needs to find its offense to pull off a long NCAA run.
No. 7 Cal (21-10)
First-round matchup: vs. No. 11 Virginia (18-13) at South Carolina.
The road ahead: This matchup pits head coach Lindsay Gottlieb against Joanne Boyle, who originally brought Gottlieb with her to Berkeley as an assistant when she coached the Bears from 2005-2011. Virginia is in the tournament for the first time since 2010.
If the Bears, who have reached the tournament for the sixth time in the last seven years, can get the win, they could well face a second-round matchup against defending national champions South Carolina on the Gamecocks’ home floor. And looking even further down, the Bears find themselves in the bracket that nobody wants to be in: Connecticut’s.
Prospects: Cal started to find its groove near the end of the conference season, including a defining win over Stanford. The Bears need Kristine Anigwe to be the dominant player she usually is, but they need more from more people like Asha Thomas and Mikayla Cowling if they want to play deep into the March calendar.
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.