Michelle Smith WBB Notebook: The top questions answered about the Pac-12 Tournament
Vegas, here we come again!
The 2020 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament has arrived and it’s a moment that many have been waiting for considering the strength of the Conference this season. The entire nation will be watching to see the last days of Sabrina’s Ionescu’s career in the Pac-12. They will be watching to see whether UCLA or Stanford or Arizona can knock off the No. 1 seed, whether Oregon State and Arizona State can improve their NCAA positions with a long run. And whether a team can “pull a Washington” and upend this whole bracket the way the Huskies did a year ago.
Let’s get on with the show.
Coming in hot
Oregon (28-2). The top-seeded Ducks have won 16 in a row by an average margin of more than 24 points a game. They are a dominant team at this point and in the second half of the conference schedule, they defeated No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 seed Stanford with relative ease, and will be the heavy favorite coming into this tournament.
Oregon State (22-8). The sixth-seeded Beavers, playing a first-round game in the conference tournament since 2013, have won three in a row and are looking to right the way heading into the NCAA Tournament, where they are still fighting hard for a top 4 seed – currently sitting at No. 15 in this week’s NCAA bracket reveal – and an opportunity to play two postseason home games at Gil Coliseum. Oregon State has played at home in four of the past five years in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
USC (16-13). This young team has collected three-straight wins to close the schedule and secure a No. 7 seed in the tournament. That run of victories puts the Trojans in a position for a WNIT bid, which can be such a valuable experience for an up-and-coming team. Just ask Arizona. Freshmen Alissa Pili and Endiya Rogers are quickly becoming stars. Veteran Kayla Overbeck will provide a steading presence on the floor in this first postseason experience.
Stanford (25-5). The Cardinal faced four ranked teams down the stretch of the season and finished with a 2-2 record, including losses to Oregon (at home) and last Friday’s overtime loss at Arizona. Stanford has relied heavily on point guard Kiana Williams, who is averaging 21 points a game over the past six games. But Williams needs more offensive help. Stanford does have the benefit of depth and that is key during a three-games-in-three-days tournament run.
Arizona (23-6). The Wildcats had a huge win on Friday against Stanford in overtime and then stumbled in the season finale against Cal, falling to the 12th-place Bears. The loss likely cost them a chance to jump into the top 10 in the national rankings and it keeps them at No. 14 in the NCAA bracket reveal. An early tournament loss could jeopardize Arizona’s chance to host at McKale Center.
Arizona State (20-10). The fifth-seeded Sun Devils are 5-5 over the final 10 games of the Pac-12. The Sun Devils rank 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and will need to be able to score with some of the conference’s best offenses to make a long run in Las Vegas. But ASU received good news with the diagnosis of senior Kiara Russell turned out not to be season ending and could possibly play this week in Las Vegas. Arizona State hasn’t reached the Pac-12 Tournament title game since 2007. They have reached the semifinals four times since then. With a current RPI of 30, they would need to pull off some upsets to have an outside shot at consideration for a host seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Record Book Watch
Tara VanDerveer sits at 1,092 career wins heading into the Pac-12 Tournament. She needs six wins to match and seven wins to pass Pat Summitt as the all-time winningest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history. Winning a Pac-12 Tournament title would mean VanDerveer would need to win four games in the NCAA Tournament – which would send the Cardinal to the Final Four – to pass Summitt.
Most intriguing first-round matchup
Colorado vs. USC. A team on the rise in the Trojans facing a Colorado team that has seven conference losses decided by 10 points or less. This will be a game loaded with young talent, including USC’s Pili and Rogers, as well as Colorado freshman guard Jaylyn Sherrod, who has scored in double figures in eight of her last 10 games. The two teams split the regular-season series, USC winning on Sunday 66-55 in the regular-season finale, a game in which the Trojans held the Buffaloes to 0-for-12 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
Most intriguing potential second-round matchups
Arizona State vs. Arizona
UCLA vs. USC
Should the seeds hold in the first round, we will have two rivalry games to spice things up in the second round. Arizona swept the regular-season series against the Sun Devils for the first time since 2000, so ASU would have ample motivation to knock the ‘Cats out of the tournament.
Meanwhile, USC and UCLA split their season series way back in the first half of the Pac-12 season, the Trojans winning 70-68 back on January 17.
Five players to watch
Francesca Belibi, Stanford. Belibi, the freshman post best known coming into the season for her monstrous internet dunks, is coming into her own late in the season. Belibi had two strong games in the final regular-season weekend, combining for 28 points and 13 rebounds. Against Arizona State on Sunday, she was 9-of-10 from the floor. Her minutes, and her ability to finish around the rim, will matter greatly inside the paint for Stanford.
Sam Thomas, Arizona. The junior forward will be playing in her hometown of Las Vegas in front of family and friends. Thomas has scored in double figures in three of the last five games, including a breakout 31-point game against Utah on February 20. Thomas also had 17 points and six assists in the overtime win over Stanford on Friday.
Endiya Rogers, USC. The freshman guard from Dallas made a big impression against Pac-12 champion Oregon three weeks ago with a 21-point, eight rebound effort. On Sunday in the season finale against Colorado, she finished with 20 points, four rebounds and four assists. Late in January, Rogers had a three-game stretch in which she scored 21, 29 and 30 points, proving she can be as explosive as anyone in the league on a given day.
Reili Richardson, Arizona State. The senior guard from Brea, Calif., has been a go-to scorer for the Sun Devils for much of the season. She has put up four 20-point games this season, and has scored in double figures in 10 of her last 15 games, and has connected on 53 3-pointers this season, ranking her among the Pac-12 long-distance leaders.
Charisma Osborne, UCLA. The freshman guard has quickly turned into one of the Pac-12’s most exciting young players. She ranks in the top 10 in 3-pointers made this season with 55. A pair of late-season double-doubles – 32 points and 11 rebounds vs. Washington State and 23 points and 10 rebounds vs. Washington – sets the bar for Osborne to be a factor in this tournament.
Don’t be surprised if the MOP is…
Ruthy Hebard, Oregon. While Sabrina Ionescu is a legend and Satou Sabally had a huge closing weekend in the regular season, it’s Hebard, the ultimate finisher in the post, who is the glue to what Oregon does at its best.
Borislava Hristova and Chanelle Molina, Washington State. The Cougars guards will likely see their careers end in Vegas this weekend and they will go down as two of the best players in the history of their program. On Sunday, Hristova moved into 11th on the Pac-12 women's basketball all-time scoring list on Sunday with 2,250 career points, surpassing USC's Tina Thompson (1994-97). She needs 28 points to move into the top-10 on the conference's all-time scoring list. Molina missed Sunday’s season finale against Oregon State, but she has been a steadfast presence in the WSU lineup. On Friday against Oregon, Molina went over 1,000 minutes played on the season with 1,035, the second-straight season that the point guard has logged more than 1,000 minutes played.
Amber Melgoza, Washington. The Huskies guard would love to lead her team on another big run through the Pac-12 Tournament before calling it a career. Melgoza moved into ninth place on UW’s all-time scoring list last weekend and has a chance to move into the top eight this weekend. Melgoza has averaged 22.9 points a game since February 1.
The Big 3 Questions
Who will be the surprise team in this tournament? USC. The Trojans are dangerous for any team they face in these next few days. They are playing with confidence and young talent, the kind of team that doesn’t know it’s not supposed to do well.
How many teams will keep playing after Vegas? Seven, maybe eight. The conference’s six NCAA teams are pretty much cemented at this point. USC and Colorado have shots at WNIT invitations, and a win or two wouldn’t hurt.
Can Oregon be challenged? It’s not going to be easy. The Ducks are balanced, experienced and supremely motivated after failing to win the tournament title a year ago. Any team that wins this tournament instead of Oregon will have to play great team defense and have a big offensive day. Nothing less will do against what is likely the best team in the country at the moment.
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.