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Michelle Smith WBB Notebook: Who is in the running for postseason honors at the midway point

Jan 29, 2020

The Pac-12 season is just about at its halfway point, every bit as competitive and thrilling as we all anticipated.

It’s a great time to take a look at the race for the league’s major awards, with the front-runners standing out in excellence.

MVP RACE
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon. It’s hard not to view Ionescu, who now owns the Pac-12’s men’s and women’s assists and the NCAA’s triple-doubles records, and is closing in on the 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound, 1,000-assist milestone (the first men’s or women’s player ever to do it), as the clear front-runner here. Her decision to return for one more season to get her team back to the NCAA Women’s Final Four was a really good one. She is at the top of her game and the Ducks are finally looking like they are ready to play their best basketball with the second-half of the conference schedule here. Ionescu leads the nation in assists at 8.6 per game and free throw percentage (94.2), and in the Pac-12 ranks fourth in scoring (17.7 ppg) and third in rebounds (8.8 rpg).

Aari McDonald, Arizona. A stellar defender and a magnetic star who has helped to turn the Wildcats women’s basketball program into a phenomenon in Tucson, McDonald leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 20.5 points a game. But there’s more to it than that for McDonald. She is a tone-setter and a pace-setter on both ends of the floor. Against Arizona State on Friday night, a game in which the Wildcats swept their rival Sun Devils, McDonald pulled down 11 rebounds.

Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA. Onyenwere has meant everything to the Bruins, who have had an outstanding season and are a national title threat when she is in the lineup. Onyenwere ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 19.8 ppg and sixth in rebounding at 7.8 rpg. This past weekend in an overtime win over Washington, Onyenwere put up a career-high 31 points. She has put up at least 20 points in eight games this season.

COACH OF THE YEAR
Kelly Graves, Oregon. It’s not an easy thing to take a team of veteran players, coming off a Final Four disappointment, remove a point guard, add in new talent and lead them back to the game’s promised land. It’s a testament to Graves that he can make it look that way. And having Sabrina Ionescu on your team doesn’t hurt. But the Ducks have fought hard to build momentum at points this season, and seem to be hitting a groove at the right time. Graves is navigating both the internal and external expectations and has Oregon peaking at the right time.

Tara VanDerveer, Stanford. The coaching legend started the year with a deep, young team. As the season has moved forward, the Cardinal have gotten less deep, and younger. Injuries to front-line players DiJonai Carrington and now Haley Jones have made some of Stanford’s wins pretty tough. But the Cardinal have shown themselves to be pretty resilient as it grinds through the Pac-12 schedule. And her young players are improving by the day, a hallmark of VanDerveer’s coaching career.

Adia Barnes, Arizona. In her third season coaching at her alma mater, Barnes has redefined the Wildcats program, and remade it in her image. Her team is bold and consistent and the toast of the Arizona desert right now. Barnes’ social media advocacy, directed at the community in Tucson to come and support her team has turned McKale Center in a very challenging place for opponents to enter and expect to win. And it’s created an atmosphere that has made the rest of the country take notice.

FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Taylor Jones, Oregon State. Jones has made an immediate and important impact on the Beavers program, giving them a strong paint presence. Jones ranks among the Pac-12 leaders in scoring (13.5 ppg), rebounds (7.4 rpg) and ranks third in field-goal percentage (60.4). Her 21-point game against Oregon on Friday night in the opening game of the Civil War showed that she is prepared to compete against the conference’s top post players.

Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado. Sherrod’s big performance Friday night at Stanford – 21 points and seven assists – showed that she is unafraid of challenging the best teams and talent in the Pac-12 and matching it with her own. Sherrod ranks second in the Pac-12 in assists per game (5.7 apg), behind only Sabrina Ionescu. She is averaging 10.6 points a game, having started the Buffs’ last 13 games.

Brynna Maxwell, Utah. Maxwell is having a strong debut season for the young Utes, averaging 12.5 points a game, and it is her perimeter shooting that is making her stand out. She is shooting 42.3 percent from the arc and leads the Pac-12 with 52 made 3-pointers. She has started 19 games, a testament to the size of her role for the Utes.

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.