Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Michelle Smith addresses the most asked questions about the Pac-12

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There’s a first time for everything. And so now, here it goes, the first-ever Pac-12.com women’s basketball mailbag as the first full weekend of conference play commences.

Another mailbag coming during the first week of February and March. Here’s how it works. Fans asked the questions on Twitter and I did my best to answer.

All of the @pac12 teams have winning records right now. Are there any teams, say in the bottom six, that you think can seriously disrupt the standings? How many teams do you think make the NCAA tournament?
There’s a difference between pulling off an upset or two and truly disrupting the standings at the top of a league that’s pretty top-heavy. But there might be a couple of teams that could end up breaking into the top tier of the conference standings, though not likely into the top four. Cal is a team picked near the bottom of the preseason standings that looks as if they might be coming along faster than expected. Washington State has a veteran backcourt and one of the country’s most consistent scorers in Borislava Hristova, who can carry her team to a surprise victory or few on a hot night, and same goes for Washington, which still feels empowered following last year’s run to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, has a motivated senior in Amber Melgoza and are putting some strong defensive numbers. Right now, seven teams in the tournament looks like a real possibility.

What do you think is UCLA's ceiling, and how do they get there?
UCLA made it a little harder to judge early on with a preseason schedule that was light on difficulty. And then the Bruins closed strong with a road win at Georgia and a very good win at Indiana against the No. 12-ranked Hoosiers that sent a message that UCLA belongs in the top 10. The ceiling is going to depend less on what they get from Japreece Dean – a fifth-year senior who has a great sense for distributing the ball – and Michaela Onyenwere, who has room to get better, but is already an All-American candidate, than what they get from the likes of freshman Charisma Osborne and junior Lauryn Miller. Osborne collected her first double-double against USC with 12 points and 10 rebounds, Miller provided all-around support in the box score. Natalie Chou, the transfer from Baylor, is capable of hitting big shots from the perimeter. Most teams that make a title run have three star-level players that help them get there. The Bruins need one more to emerge to join Dean and Onyenwere at the top of the marquee. Once someone does, UCLA will be a team NO ONE wants to play in March.

Contender or pretender?...UCLA, Cal, Arizona
Well, for starters, don’t like referring to any team as a “pretender,” but I get the point of the question. Two of those teams – UCLA and Arizona - have high-level talent, experience playing together, good coaching and good team culture. And despite light preseason schedules, have already proven that they are elite teams in the conference.

Cal has a couple of those things – coaching and culture. The Bears are starting fresh in many ways, from new head coach Charmin Smith to four new starters. Smith has the benefit of building on the foundations of culture laid down by Lindsay Gottlieb. And the Bears have had some really nice moments already this season. Picked to finish second-to-last in preseason polls, they look like they will be considerably better than that.

Do you see a path for Oregon State to win the National Championship?
Yes, but that path is tied directly to the success of rival Oregon, and not just in head-to-head matchups. The battle to be the No. 1 seed in the Portland Region come NCAA Tournament time is a real one. Playing two games at home and then two regional games in front of a very partisan crowd in Portland to get to the NCAA Final Four will be a huge lift for either team.

Whose name will we know at mid-season or Pac-12 Tourney time that we aren’t tracking yet?
Jaz Shelley, Oregon. The freshman guard from Australia hit a program-record 10 3-pointers in a single game last month. If Shelley can be even close to that kind of perimeter threat in conference play, the Ducks will be that much tougher on everyone from now until April.

Lots of standout freshman this year. Who will have continued success during conference play?
Depends on their situations and how you define success. Oregon State’s Taylor Jones leads all Pac-12 freshmen in scoring (14.1 ppg) and blocks (2.0 bpg), she is shooting 61 percent from the floor and is playing on one of the best teams in the country.  Stanford’s Haley Jones is going to play a big role for the Cardinal as the Pac-12 season gets rolling, but has a deep, talented team around her. Meanwhile, teams like Utah and USC are relying heavily on freshmen talent and while those freshmen are going to experience individual success in terms of their scoring and their minutes, they may have to be patient when it comes to wins.

Which team will improve most from now until Las Vegas?
USC is a candidate for big improvement between now and the end of the season. With the expected return of both Shalexxus Aaron (foot injury), who made 42 3-pointers as a freshman last season, and Stephanie Watts (knee injury), the graduate transfer from North Carolina, to mix in with a group of young players seeing major playing time, the Trojans have an opportunity for an upswing as the season moves on.

Is Colorado for real?
The Buffaloes are undoubtedly an improved team from a year ago and opening the conference schedule with a win over Utah is a confidence-builder for a team that won just two Pac-12 games a season ago. Eight players are averaging at least 17 minutes per game. The Buffaloes rank fifth in the conference in scoring, fifth in field-goal percentage, third in free throws made, fifth in steals and third in blocked shots. We will know more about J.R. Payne's team following this weekend at Oregon and Oregon State.

Will Arizona and UCLA's unbalanced schedule help them disrupt the conference standings at the top?
Life in the Pac-12 is certainly easier when you don’t have to play a second set of games against Oregon, Oregon State or Stanford, and all of those teams have to face one another twice. Arizona will only face Stanford once (on their home floor), but have two sets against the Oregon schools. UCLA has one game against Stanford (at Maples Pavilion) and one game each against Oregon and Oregon State (at Pauley Pavilion). It not hard to see how that could have a significant impact on the standings by the end of the season.

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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