Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Pac-12 Tournament Questions
By Michelle Smith
Vegas, here we come! The Pac-12 season, one that cemented the conference as the most competitive in the nation, has ended and now it’s time for a new venue to crown a champion.
The stars will be in the MGM Grand Arena, the stakes are high and the storylines are many.
Let’s take a look at it all.
Coming in hot
Stanford and UCLA. The Cardinal have won six straight since their big home loss to Oregon, the longest win streak of any team headed into Vegas. The Bruins, meanwhile, have won 10 of their last 12 to nail down the No. 4 seed. An impressive turnaround for Cori Close’s team after a 2-4 start to conference play.
Arizona State and Utah. The Sun Devils come into Las Vegas with three losses in their last four games, but a big win over Oregon State last weekend at home. Utah, which peaked in late-January with an 18-1 record and a first-ever win over Stanford, has lost eight of its last 10 games, meaning what was once a sure NCAA bid has become a definite bubble situation for the injury-plagued Utes.
Record Book Watch
Cal’s Kristine Anigwe tied the Pac-12 single-game rebounding record with 30 boards last Sunday against Washington State. The single-game record for the Pac-12 Tournament is 27 rebounds. Seems doable for the extraordinary Anigwe.
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon. There has never been a triple-double in the Pac-12 Tournament. With the NCAA’s all-time leader in career triple-doubles heading to the tournament, could this be the year?
The view from the bubble:
Utah has a 20-win season and a 9-9 conference record in its favor, but a No. 75 RPI, a struggle to the finish of the conference schedule and a series of significant injuries puts the Utes on shaky ground with the selection committee.
USC. The Women of Troy need a big run in this tournament with 17 wins and a 7-11 conference mark hurting their NCAA case. But USC has the best RPI among this group at No. 42.
Arizona. The Wildcats are in the same boat as USC with 17 wins and a 7-11 conference record. But an 89 RPI, thanks to a less-challenging non-conference schedule, makes this a big uphill climb without a run to at least the semifinals.
Most intriguing first-round matchup
No. 9 USC and No. 8 Arizona. These two teams played just once during the Pac-12 schedule, the Wildcats coming away with a 71-68 win in Tucson, a game of swings in which USC led by 10 in the first half and trailed by 13 in the 4th quarter before rallying to a dramatic finish. Both teams have been playing toe-to-toe with the top teams in the conference down the stretch and both teams have NCAA hopes that will absolutely depend on a strong run in the conference tournament.
Most intriguing potential second-round matchup
No. 7 Cal vs. No. 2 Stanford. The Bay Area rivals split their series this season, each team winning at home. This game would feature two of the league’s biggest stars in Anigwe and Alanna Smith, great guard matchups and a lot of history.
Five players to watch
Outside of the Pac-12’s marquee stars, there are a group of outstanding players who are poised to make noise in Vegas:
Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA. Onyenwere, the sophomore forward, has emerged as a star in this Pac-12 season for the surging Bruins. Onyenwere leads UCLA in scoring at 18.2 points a game, and is second in rebounding at 8.2. She has put up at least 25 points in eight games this season and is averaging 21.2 points a game over the final eight of the conference season.
Megan Huff, Utah. If the Utes can make a strong run in the Pac-12 Tournament and get themselves into the NCAA Tournament, it will likely be because their senior forward led them there. Huff has had an outstanding final season, averaging 20.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. She also leads the team in blocks and steals and has been the steadying presence on the floor following season-ending injuries to Daneesha Provo and Freshman of the Year De’Una Edwards.
Mariya Moore, USC. While her younger sister, Minyon has established herself as one of the top point guards in the conference, Mariya, who left Louisville to transfer and play alongside her sister, is coming up big down the stretch for the Women of Troy. She finished with 25 points and seven rebounds in the conference-closing win over Utah on Sunday, has pushed her scoring average to 13.1 points a game and owns a team-leading 58 3-pointers this season.
Aari McDonald, Arizona. The Pac-12’s leading scorer this season is no secret to anyone, but she is a game-changer who could make the Wildcats a darkhorse contender in this tournament. McDonald broke the single-season scoring record at Arizona held by her head coach, Adia Barnes, and has averaged 24.9 points per game, all while turning into one of the Pac-12’s most feared perimeter defenders with a conference-leading 77 steals this season.
Borislava Hristova, Washington State. If the Cougars can pull an upset and advance to the second round of the tournament, Hristova will probably be paving the way. Hristova has 14 20-point game this year. She has scored in double figures in all but two games this season and is ranked among the top 20 scorers in the country.
Kennedy Leonard, Colorado. The Buffalo point guard, one of the top floor generals in the Pac-12 over the past four years, deserved far better than she got in a senior season plagued by injury. After playing in 100-consecutive games in her college career, Leonard missed 10 games during the Pac-12 season due to injury, yet still managed to lead her team in scoring at 12.9 points per game. Leonard, the school’s all-time assists leader, also led the team in steals. There is no doubt she was missed this season as Colorado’s offensive production dropped from 71.1 points a game with Leonard in the lineup to 59.2 without her.
The Big 3 Questions
Who will be the surprise team in this tournament? Cal is playing well down the stretch and Anigwe’s extraordinary production, and her motivation to finish her career with a championship could put the Bears in a position to make a run at disrupting the top seeds. To compete for a title, Cal is going to need some big-time guard play. If Asha Thomas and Recee Caldwell start scoring big, look out for the Bears.
How many teams will keep playing after Vegas? There could be as many as nine teams in postseason tournaments after the Pac-12 Tournament concludes on Sunday. The unknown is whether the conference can get a seventh team in the NCAA field for the second time in the last three seasons.
Can Oregon be challenged? The Ducks’ 40-point win at Stanford last month was a statement win, no question. But did it make the statement that Oregon is that much better than the rest of the conference? Not necessarily. Oregon comes into the tournament having lost twice in the last three weeks, and it seems unlikely that a title rematch between the Ducks and the Cardinal would be contested by the same wide margin.