Michelle Smith women's basketball notebook: Around the League
We are less than two weeks away from one of the most exciting Pac-12 seasons in history considering the power the conference has demonstrated in this 2019-20 preseason, with four teams ranked among the top 10 in the country and two different Pac-12 teams sitting at No. 1 already this season.
But before we dig into the conference race, it’s time to answer a few questions about the close of the non-conference schedule:
Who will challenge the Pac-12 power players before conference play?
With four teams in the top 10 of the national rankings, there is little doubt that the west coast is the best coast in the women’s basketball world right now. All three of the teams ranked in the top 5 have taken on ranked opponents in this preseason, combining for a 7-1 record against those teams. Stanford has the toughest road to the conference schedule. The Cardinal came back from the finals break with a tough 3-game stretch that included a home game against Ohio State, followed by Tennessee on Wednesday and then travel to Texas on Saturday. Oregon’s final major-conference opponent of the non-conference is Kansas State, a home game for the Ducks on December 21. Oregon State, which has won three games over ranked teams by double-digits, have BYU, Northern Arizona and Cal State Bakersfield before opening conference play, three games they will be expected to win handily.
Which individual Pac-12 players are poised for a breakout season?
Cate Reese, ARIZONA. While Aari McDonald collects national recognition for her scoring and the unbeaten Wildcats climb in the national rankings, Reese is proving to be one of the best young players in the country. The sophomore put up a career-high 23 points against Tennessee State after being named Pac-12 Player of the Week for the first time in her career. If there’s more where that came from in conference play, McDonald and Reese will be a potent combination.
Chanelle Molina, WASHINGTON STATE. Molina isn’t new to the Pac-12 by any stretch. She’s a senior guard from Hawaii with two of her sisters on the Cougars roster, but she has always been unsung compared to her teammate Borislava Hristova, who has consistently been one of the league’s top scorers. But Molina is averaging 15.2 points a game and her season highlight thus far was a 25-point breakout performance against then No. 2 Baylor. In the next game she put up 17 points to go with seven rebounds against South Carolina. Playing big against the best teams in the country bodes well for the Pac-12 season.
Endiya Rogers, USC. With so many changes this year at USC, new faces were bound to emerge. Top on that list is Rogers, who is making an immediate impact. With eight starts under her belt, Rogers, is averaging 12.0 points a game and ranks second in minutes played thus far. The freshman guard from Dallas, Texas, put up a season-high 20 points in a big game against then-unbeaten Texas A&M.
Emma Clarke, COLORADO. Clarke, a sophomore guard from Perth, Australia, has posted three-consecutive career highs in scoring, including 21 points last week in a win over Denver. She has started all nine games for Colorado so far this season, scoring in double figures in the last four in a row.
Ja'Tavia Tapley, Arizona State. The senior forward, who transferred to Tempe from USC last spring, Tapley came in as an experienced player, with 41 starts over the past three seasons. She is providing presence inside for ASU, leading the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game to go with 8.2 rebounds. She has put up three double-doubles in the last four games. The Sun Devils will need that offensive punch when Pac-12 play begins.
Which teams have been a surprise so far?
USC. The Women of Troy, for all of their roster changes, have wins over Virginia and Alabama, and a 10-point loss to a Texas A&M, that is proving to be one of the country’s best teams. Mark Trakh’s team is coming along. But this is a team that ranks near the bottom of most of the league’s offensive categories - points, 3-point shooting, rebounds, and will need to be more productive to keep pace in the Pac-12.
CALIFORNIA. The Bears started the season with a new head coach, one returning starter and two losses. Since then, Cal has won seven in a row, including a big game against Arkansas, and have been finding new offensive options alongside senior Jaelyn Brown, including a pair of international talents in Evelien Lutje Schipholt and Chen Yue. Against Santa Clara, Lutje Schipholt, a Dutch standout, collected a career-high 19 points with nine rebounds. Yue, the first Chinese-born woman to play Division I basketball, ended up with her first career double-double.
WASHINGTON. The Huskies are 6-2 and lead the Pac-12 in both steals per game (13.1) and field-goal attempts per game at 68.6. Washington has held five of its first eight opponents under 60 points and ranks 10th in the NCAA in scoring defense (52.1 ppg). The Huskies are also limiting opponents to just 32.8 percent shooting from the field, which ranks 12th-best in the NCAA.
Which teams are being impacted by injuries in the early season?
OREGON STATE. The Beavers, who are off to their best start in school history, have been strong in the preseason with three double-digit wins over ranked teams - and nine double-digit wins on the way to a 11-0 record - feats that are all the most impressive considering they are without one of the main players, forward Tara Corosdale, who will miss the rest of the season with a hamstring injury. But strong play of youngsters Taylor Jones and Kennedy Brown are helping to make up for Corosdale’s loss.
STANFORD. The top-ranked Cardinal have been without senior guard DiJonai Carrington (knee pain) since Thanksgiving weekend at the Victoria Tournament, where it defeated then-No. 10 Mississippi State in the title game. But it had to hold on for a tight finish because at game’s end, it was also missing point guard Kianna Williams. Williams was back in the decisive win over Ohio State and No. 23 Tennessee. Lacie Hull saw some playing time against the Lady Vols, her first action since Thanksgiving, and Carrington and Maya Dodson are currently unavailable for the Cardinal, putting a dent in the depth that Stanford began the season with.
UTAH. The Utes have spent the first portion of this season without senior forward Daneesha Provo, who sustained a knee injury nearly a year ago. But Provo was back on the floor for the first time this season on Saturday, finishing with four points, four rebounds and three steals in 12 minutes in her first game of the season.
Which teams are about to make the biggest jump in degree of difficulty?
UCLA. At 10-0, UCLA is off to its best start since 2010-11, but the hardest games of the preseason are still to come it faces a big game on the road against No. 12 Indiana in Bloomington before the holiday break, after winning a a three-point defensive battle at Georgia earlier this week.
ARIZONA. The Wildcats are 10-0 for the first time in school history with an average margin of victory of 31.3 points. The Texas win in Austin was impressive, but the Longhorns - ranked No. 22 at the time - were Arizona’s only major conference opponent of the preseason.
COLORADO. The Buffaloes are 9-0 to start the season, a preseason slate highlighted early by a win over Wisconsin. But Colorado finds itself on the road for its next five games, a big test for a team figuring out where it will land in the Pac-12 pecking order.