Michelle Smith Pac-12 WBB Feature: Let the (conference) games begin

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No one could quite say it better than UCLA coach Cori Close.

“I’m not sure you could ask for a better challenge as a coach,” Close said of the Pac-12. “Elite coaches, different styles of play, phenomenal talent, and the best preparation for March you could ask for. Let the Pac 12 season begin.”

Four of the last nine unbeaten teams in the nation are in the Pac-12.

Four of the top 10 teams in the country are in the Pac-12.

Every season over these past few years, as the Pac-12 has ascended to become the nation’s best, we have proclaimed the upcoming season the most compelling ever.

And the 2020 season is no different. Except that it is.

The nation’s power base for women’s basketball has moved decisively west. Each weekend will bring powerhouse matchups with implications for the national rankings and NCAA seedings and the top of the Pac-12 will be battling to be ready to contend for more than a conference title, but a national title.

Bring it on.

ARIZONA
Record: 
11-0
Highlight: An 83-58 win over then-No. 22 Texas
Pac-12 Prospects: The Wildcats - who have won 17 straight games in a streak dating back to last season (the longest active streak in the nation) - are squarely on the national radar, ranked in the top 25 (at No. 18) for the first time since and are off to the best start in program history. A year ago, Arizona was made up of Aari McDonald putting up big scoring numbers and a young team settling in. But the Wildcats are now experienced, confident and much more dangerous because of the consistent contributions of sophomore Cate Reese and Sam Thomas. Reese is averaging 15 points a game over the past three games. McDonald, meanwhile, is still doing her thing to the tune of 19.9 points a game. Defensively, the Wildcats have been impressive, having held their opponents to fewer than 50 points in seven straight games. The Wildcats are going to be tested quickly in the Pac-12 schedule, opening with Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon in the first three weekends. After a non-conference schedule that was fairly light on degree of difficulty, Arizona is going to find out quickly whether they will be able to contend in the top half of this brutally tough conference.

ARIZONA STATE
Record: 10-2
Highlight: 2-1 record in Florida Gulf Coast Showcase, including 61-60 win over Middle Tennessee
Pac-12 Prospects: The Sun Devils have yet to notch a victory this season over a major conference opponent, falling to both Minnesota and Purdue as they come into the season hoping to keep pace with the top teams in the conference. ASU has six straight wins heading into conference play and are ranked fourth in the nation in rebounding margin and third in offensive rebounds. The thing that the Sun Devils need most heading into conference play against some strong scoring teams is offense. ASU ranks second-to-last in the Pac-12 in scoring average (69.1 points per game) and field-goal percentage (39.6), rank last in free-throw percentage and have only one scorer in double figures in Ja’Tavia Tapley at 12.6 points a game. Defense is always ASU’s calling card, but it will only get them so far against the Pac-12 powers this season.

CALIFORNIA
Record:
 7-3
Highlight: 84-80 win over No. 20 Arkansas
Pac-12 Prospects: The Bears are a rebuilding program with a new head coach in Charmin Smith, moving on after having such a dominant talent as Kristine Anigwe. And so far, it’s going pretty well. Cal played Connecticut tough, has a top 20 win, and have won seven of eight games heading into conference play with a tough loss last week at home to No. 14 Kentucky. Senior guard Jaelyn Brown has three 20-point scoring efforts this season and is the Bears’ leading scorer. Players such as Evelien Lutje Schipholt and Chen Yue are improving quickly to become factors inside. But Cal has a brutal start to the conference schedule with four-game run after the opening weekend that goes No. 4 Stanford (on the road), Stanford (at home), No. 3 Oregon State (on the road), No. 2 Oregon (on the road). The Bears are going to have to keep pace with teams to be competitive, because they don’t hit a lot of 3-pointers (49 all season so far) that can get them quickly in comeback mode if they get behind. Smith is steeling her team for this defining stretch, where they will find out how close they are to the best teams in the country, and possibly how much further there is to go.

COLORADO
Record: 11-0
Highlight: 74-57 win over Wisconsin
Pac-12 Prospects: The Buffaloes come into conference play with another strong record, their first 11-0 record to start the season for the first time since the 2012-13 season. In fact, Colorado has been 31-4 under head coach JR Payne heading into conference play over the past three years. But the Buffs have never finished higher than ninth in the Pac-12 standings in that stretch. Last year, Colorado was 10-1 coming into the Pac-12 schedule and finished in last place. The point is, things get a lot harder now, especially when you are one of only eight teams in the country with three or fewer upperclassmen. Colorado feels like things will be different for them this season, particularly as they have showed balance with four different leading scorers in games thus far and six players in double figures in a big win over Denver. Mya Hollingshed leads the way at 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Freshman Emma Clarke is also averaging double figures at 11.7 points per game.

OREGON
Record: 10-1
Highlight: A 93-86 win over team Team USA.
Pac-12 Prospects: The mid-November win over the U.S. team doesn’t count on the Ducks record, but it was an undeniable tone-setter for a team that many have already penciled into the NCAA Women's Final Four brackets in New Orleans. The Ducks’ season so far has just one blemish, the loss to Louisville over Thanksgiving break that knocked them from the No. 1 ranking in the country, and gave them an opportunity to evaluate and fine-tune. Oregon has a road win at Syracuse, and a 39-point win over a South Dakota State team that played them tough last spring in the NCAA Tournament. Their average margin of victory in the last four games (since the Louisville loss) is 39.0 points. Sabrina Ionescu has posted triple-doubles in each of her past two games. Ruthy Hebard is averaging 17.0 points and shooting 73.1 percent from the floor. Fifth-year senior Minyon Moore brings stability at the point. Freshman Jaz Shelley just hit a program-record 10 3-pointers in a game and Satou Sabally might be one of the best all-around players in the country. This team is loaded and healthy and ready for what comes. And what comes will be a challenge with a January run of games that goes: Arizona, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Oregon State. Talk about a defining stretch.

OREGON STATE
Record: 
11-0
Highlight: A 75-53 win over Miami on the road.
Pac-12 Prospects: The Beavers got four votes last week as the nation’s No. 1 team for a resume that includes three double-digit wins over ranked opponent and an unflappability that many of the top teams haven’t been able to completely muster. Oregon State is off to its best start in program history, and has built the kind of momentum it will need to survive what promises to be a brutal Pac-12 campaign. Like travel partner Oregon, the Beavers have a very tough start to the Pac-12 schedule in January, and will know a whole lot more about itself by the time it finishes a back-to-back against Oregon at Gil Coliseum on January 26. Senior guard Mikayla Pivec is making an early case for Pac-12 player of the year as the conference’s leading rebounder at 9.9 rebounds per game, scoring a team-leading 15.6 points a game as well. Point guard Destiny Slocum is averating 14.7 points a game and shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, and freshman Taylor Jones has three 20-point plus games this season already.

STANFORD
Record:
 11-1
Highlight: A 27-point win over Tennessee at home on December 17.
Pac-12 Prospects: The Cardinal have depth, versatility, size and an experienced point guard in Kianna Williams, not to mention a gaggle of the conference’s most exciting young players, including sophomore Lexie Hull and freshman Haley Jones. In fact, among Stanford’s top seven scorers, four are freshmen - including Jones, Fran Belibi, Ashten Prechtel and Hannah Jump. Last week’s upset loss at Texas knocked Stanford from the No. 1 ranking and showed that the Cardinal are not quite where they want to be yet this season. Getting senior DiJonai Carrington back on the floor - she has missed six straight games with knee soreness - would be a huge boost to both Stanford’s scoring and its ability to weather the tough moments when Pac-12 play begins. The Cardinal will play four straight games in the Bay Area before heading north to take on Oregon and Oregon State in mid-January.

UCLA
Record:
 11-0
Highlight: A 68-58 win over No. 12 Indiana in Bloomington.
Pac-12 Prospects: The Bruins, who are one win shy of the best-ever start in program history, boomerang into Pac-12 play off of their biggest win of the non-conference schedule against the Hoosiers, their only win over a ranked team, to date. Michaela Onyenwere is having a stellar junior season, ranking second in the conference in scoring at 19.7 points per game, and scoring at least 20 points in six games thus far. UCLA ranks fourth in the league in scoring (74.9 ppg), 4th in rebounding (43.5 rpg), 4th in assists (17.8 apg) and 4th in steals (10.7 spg). But UCLA won’t be satisfied with finishing fourth and will need to prove some mettle against the conference’s top teams. The schedule puts the Bruins, 6-0 at home so far this season, in Los Angeles for six of its first eight games and they will have the advantage of only having to face the Bay Area schools and the Oregon schools once during the regular season.

USC
Record: 8-3
Highlight: A 59-49 win over Virginia in November on the night USC retired Tina Thompson’s jersey.
Pac-12 Prospects: USC opens conference play with five straight wins under its belt and two ranked teams on the horizon in No. 10 UCLA and No. 18 Arizona. USC played four power five opponents and went 2-2 in those games with wins against Alabama and Virginia. They have one bad loss against UC Santa Barbara, a game in which they were missing four starters. In his third season back at USC, Mark Trakh is playing six freshmen with major minutes, starting three freshmen and a sophomore and another sophomore, Shalexxus Aaron, is expected back in the third week of Pac-12 play after missing two months with a broken foot. Trakh considers this the “brick and mortar” phase of rebuilding his program.

UTAH
Record: 7-4
Highlight: A 77-73 win over BYU in Provo on November 29.
Pac-12 Prospects: After opening the season with three straight losses, the Utes have righted the way and are 7-1 in their last eight games. This is a team relying heavily on its young talent, including freshmen Brynna Maxwell and Lola Pendande and sophomore Niyah Becker, the team’s top three scorers. After opening the schedule against Colorado, Utah will face a challenging stretch that includes games against Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA in a row. Three top 10 opponents over one week. The Utes’ youth will be tested. Utah ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and will need to tighten up to stay competitive against the high-scoring teams of this conference.

WASHINGTON
Record:
 8-3
Highlight: A 70-63 win over Iowa
Pac-12 Prospects: The Huskies are holding down the fort with good defense. The Huskies have held seven of their opponents under 58 points and rank in the top 20 in the NCAA in scoring defense at 54.0 ppg. UW is also limiting opponents to 34.5 percent shooting from the field and have forced a Pac-12 leading 23.8 turnovers per game. No surprise that senior guard Amber Melgoza leads the team in scoring at 13.0 points per game. The Huskies are going to need to be at their defensive best to improve upon their finish from last season. They open the Pac-12 with three straight road games - at Washington State, at Cal and at Stanford.

WASHINGTON STATE
Record:
 7-5
Highlight: An 80-68 win over Boise State
Pac-12 Prospects: The team with the lowest winning percentage in the preseason is the team that has faced the biggest degree of difficulty in their schedule. All five of the Cougars’ losses this season have come against ranked teams. And all but one of them has come away from their home floor. Washington State’s difficult schedule - which included Baylor, South Carolina, Gonzaga, Miami and Indiana - could be very helpful in preparing them for the rigors of Pac-12 play. But they also have a player that knows the rigor of Pac-12 play as well as anyone in the conference in senior guard Borislava Hristova, who has collected six 20-point scoring games this season and currently ranks third in the Pac-12 at 19.2 points per game. Washington State could be a surprise entrant into the top half of the conference standing if they can figure out how to parlay their experience into a toughness that helps them win some big games.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

 

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