Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Team-by-team Pac-12 women's basketball preview heading into league play

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What better way to celebrate the end of the 2018 non-conference season than with two of the biggest crowds in Pac-12 women’s basketball history?

Last Saturday, California hosted top-ranked Connecticut, who was in Berkeley for the first time in 26 and the excitement around two unbeaten teams going head-to-head brought out 10,818 fans, the largest single-game crowd in the history of the Bears’ program.
“We played that game in front of a huge crowd that these young women deserve,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

Just days before, Oregon faced off against Mississippi State, the team that has played in the national title game two years in a row, the Ducks pulling off an 82-74 upset win in front of 8,951 at Matthew Knight Arena. It was the second-largest crowd for a women’s game in program history.

Now as the calendar is almost ready to turn to 2019, the Pac-12 season is here. With nine teams with nine or more wins, five teams ranked in national polls, 10 teams ranked among the top 100 in RPI (as of Dec. 23), the best scoring average of any conference in the country (75.0 ppg) and improved play by some of the team’s that finished in the lower tier a season ago, this promises to be one of the most competitive seasons ever.

Let’s look at what’s led us to this point so far.

ARIZONA (10-1)
Looking back:
The Wildcats have put up their longest winning streak (eight games) since the 2003-04 season and are off to their best start in seven years, having surpassed their win total from last season in the non-conference schedule. Aari McDonald has established herself as one of the top scorers in the country, averaging 24.6 points a game, which ranks her fourth in the nation. Meanwhile, freshman Cate Reese is averaging 13.8 points a game and ranks third in double-doubles (4) among freshmen across the country. Arizona leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing opponents 50.4 points a game.

Looking forward: Having faced a non-conference schedule full of mid-majors and winning games by some very big margins, the degree of difficulty is about to go up substantially for the Wildcats. Opening the Pac-12 schedule with a home game against rival Arizona State will be a strong barometer of Arizona’s improvement and whether the Wildcats will be a factor in the Pac-12 standings.

ARIZONA STATE (9-2)
Looking back:
The Sun Devils are currently ranked No. 17 in the nation after a strong non-conference campaign that includes a seven-game win streak and notable wins over Arkansas and Kansas State. A 58-56 loss to Louisville, widely regarded as a national championship contender, in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving proved that the Sun Devils can play with anyone. ASU’s only other loss was a 65-59 loss to Baylor in early November. This balanced ASU team can score, averaging 71.6 points a game and allowing opponents 52.2 points a game. Kianna Ibis leads the way at 12.2 points per game, with Courtney Ekmark averaging 11.1.

Looking forward: The Sun Devils open the conference slate with three straight road games at Arizona, and then at Utah and at Colorado, the three teams combining for just two losses heading into Pac-12 play. Arizona State allowed its last two opponents 18.5 percent in the final quarter and will be hoping to bring that kind of defensive effort down the stretch to play now that Pac-12 play is here.

CALIFORNIA (9-1)
Looking back:
The 14th-ranked Bears closed the non-conference schedule on Dec. 22 with a competitive-to-the-end loss to top-ranked Connecticut, and it has been a strong start to the season for a team hoping to carry that momentum into a challenge for the Pac-12 title. Kristine Anigwe has simply been one of the best players in the country in the first two months, averaging 23.6 points (second in the Pac-12) and a conference-leading 13.7 rebounds per game. She is the only player in the country to post a double-double in every game she’s played this season. News that redshirt sophomore guard Mi’Cole Cayton will miss the rest of the season with an injury is a blow, but the Bears have depth that they haven’t known in previous years to be able to absorb the bad news.

Looking forward: Cal opens the Pac-12 schedule with four of six games at home and only one currently ranked opponent among those first six games. It is an opportunity for the Bears to get off to a strong start and set a tone for the back half of the conference race, where they will have to face Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State down the stretch.

COLORADO (10-1)
Looking back:
The Buffaloes’ great non-conference season included a double-digit win over North Carolina on November 18, their second win over an ACC team in back-to-back years. The only loss a tough defeat against No. 21 Miami in Coral Gables earlier this month. Senior Kennedy Leonard is leading a balanced offense, scoring 13.9 points a game. Nine players are averaging double-digit minutes and six players are averaging at least 7.0 points a game. Freshman Peanut Tuitele is having a breakout debut season so far, averaging 9.5 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, including reaching double-digits in five of her last six games while being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week.

Looking forward: Colorado opens the Pac-12 schedule with three in a row at home, facing one of the biggest challenges of the season so far in a January 6 date with Arizona State that will serve as an important barometer. The Buffaloes are 8-0 at home so far this season. Keep an eye on Leonard in the early days of Pac-12 play. The senior guard needs just four assists from tying Colorado’s all-time assists record.

OREGON (11-1)
Looking back:
Heading into the season, Oregon was viewed as a NCAA Women's Final Four contender and the Ducks have done nothing to change that perception during the non-conference season. The lone blemish was a road loss at Michigan State and the biggest win came just in the past few days as the Ducks up-ended No. 4 Mississippi State in Eugene to post a huge victory over the highest-ranked non-conference foe outside of the NCAA Tournament. Junior Sabrina Ionescu (the nation’s assist leader) remains a frontrunner for national player of the year, having broken the NCAA men's and women's record for career triple-doubles with back-to-back triple-doubles last week. Oregon is the top-scoring team in the country, averaging 92.6 points a game with five players averaging double-figures in scoring, led by Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard (16.2 ppg).

Looking forward: The Ducks open the conference slate with four of six at home and only one ranked opponent - Arizona State on January 18 - in that bunch. Oregon will have a great opportunity at a strong start toward defending its Pac-12 title.

OREGON STATE (9-2)
Looking back:
The Beavers are the top 3-point shooting team in the country (43.4 percent), having made double-digits attempts from beyond the arc in six of their nine games this season. The addition of guard Destiny Slocum to the lineup adds to OSU’s ability generate offense from the perimeter. Slocum has scored more than 20 points three time thus far. Neutral court losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M are the only blemishes on a strong non-conference effort. Beating Duke on Dec. 20 at home, OSUs first-ever win over the Blue Devils, was a strong finish before the holiday break heading into Pac-12 play.

Looking forward: The Beavers will play four of their first six Pac-12 games on their home floor, a place where they are very comfortable. Can the team that is averaging more than 10 3-pointers a game keep that up against conference foes?

STANFORD (9-1)
Looking back:
The Cardinal stumbled just once, with a road loss to Gonzaga before final exams in early December, but came back to put up two of the biggest wins in the non-conference for the Pac-12 -- a home victory over No. 3 Baylor and a road victory against No. 9 Tennessee. Led by senior Alanna Smith, Stanford is getting balanced scoring from players such as Kiana Williams, DiJonai Carrington and twins Lexie and Lacie Hull, who put up a career-high 14 points in the road win against the Vols to earn Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors. The Cardinal are deep and poised and ready to challenge for a title.

Looking forward: Stanford will be getting a pair of key players back in time for the start of the conference schedule. Senior point guard Marta Snizek, who has yet to play this season and Lexie Hull, who started the first three games of the season, and has missed the next seven games with a leg injury. Tara VanDerveer needs seven wins to reach 900 wins at Stanford.

UCLA (6-5)
Looking back:
The Bruins have been on a roller coaster since the season began, pulling out a strong win against Georgia early on at home before losing four straight, and now winning three in a row heading toward the start of conference play. Sophomore forward Michaela Onyenwere leads the way in scoring at 15.4 points a game, followed closely by junior Kennedy Burke at 14.7 points a game.

Looking forward: UCLA has perhaps the toughest start to conference play of any team in the league, taking on five ranked teams in its first seven conference games, and the other two games in that starting set are against rival USC.

USC (10-1)
Looking back:
The Women of Troy have built confidence in collecting double-digit wins heading into Pac-12 play, the only loss on the road to Texas A&M. USC played four games without Aliyah Mazyck, the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, but Mazyck is back in the lineup, adding valuable depth to the lineup.

Looking forward: USC comes into conference play with 10 wins for the second year in a row. Like travel partner UCLA, USC has a tough open to the Pac-12 season with games against Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State stacked into the first half of the schedule. The Women of Troy will quickly find out whether they can contend in the top half of the conference.

UTAH (11-0)
Looking back:
One of nine teams across the country with an unbeaten record and the only team in the Pac-12 to finish the non-conference undefeated, the Utes have relied on a potent combination of star power and youth to keep them unbeaten in the preseason. Utah’s schedule has included a pair of wins over SEC teams - Alabama and Florida. Senior Megan Huff leads the Utes in scoring at 20.4 points a game. Freshman Dre’Una Edwards is averaging 12.4 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, positioning herself for conference freshman of the year honors.

Looking forward: The Utes will play four of their first six Pac-12 games at home, where they have a 7-0 record thus far during the season. But they open on the road at Colorado, their first road opener since Lynne Roberts became the head coach four years ago. As the degree of difficulty increases, it will be interesting to see if Utah can maintain its strong offensive pace of 79.4 points a game.

WASHINGTON (7-5)
Looking back:
The Huskies’ biggest wins of the non-conference were a Thanksgiving tournament win over Duke and a home victory over Ohio State. But Washington heads into conference play with two straight losses, looking to gain some momentum back as the Pac-12 schedule begins. Eleven players on the Huskies’ roster are averaging double-digit minutes, as Washington shows one of the deepest teams in the Pac-12.

Looking forward: A Pac-12 home opener kicks things off for the Huskies, who are led by junior Amber Melgoza, averaging 18.5 points a game. She was an All-Pac-12 selection last season.

WASHINGTON STATE (5-6)
Looking back: The Cougars are the only team in the Pac-12 to come out of the non-conference season with something other than a winning record, but Washington State rallied from a tough 1-4 start to win 4-of-6 games heading into the conference schedule. Borislava Hristova, who has been one of the Pac-12’s most consistent scorers during her time in Pullman, currently ranks third in the Pac-12 in scoring at 21.8 points a game with two 30-plus point games to her credit.

Looking forward: The Cougars open Pac-12 play against rival Washington, looking to end of run of four of five losses in the series between the two teams. WSU will play the first three Pac-12 games of head coach Kamie Ethridge’s tenure on the road at Seattle and then in Oregon against ranked opponents in the Oregon State Beavers and Oregon Ducks.

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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