Michelle Smith Women’s Basketball Feature: Tournament Preview
Mar 2, 2021
What an interesting bookend of this last year, to end up back in Las Vegas this week, the same location as the last competition of 2020 before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament.
It has not been an easy season, with pauses, postponements and cancellations. There has been uncertainty and sacrifice and some real struggles. But there has also been brilliant basketball and a collective group of players giving everything to the game in the most unique of circumstances.
Returning to Vegas is a sign of resilience and recovery. And for many teams it is the all-important gateway to the postseason.
Let’s break down this week’s Tournament.
Coming in hot
Setting aside the top-seeded Cardinal, who have won 11-straight since their mid-season two-game losing streak, there are other teams coming into the Tournament with momentum.
Oregon State (9-6, 7-6) - Led by senior Aleah Goodman, the Beavers arrive in Vegas having won six of their last seven games, including consecutive road wins over ranked UCLA and Oregon. The team that started 1-5 in the Pac-12 season is going to have to win four games in five days to win a title, but that suddenly doesn’t seem very far-fetched.
UCLA (14-4, 12-4) - The Bruins come into the tournament with eight wins in their last 10 games and a 93-point regular-season finale performance against USC, which showed that their offense is ready for the postseason. UCLA’s depth, however, will be tested with the potential of three games in four days.
Colorado (10-9, 8-8) - The Buffaloes have four-straight wins, six wins in their last 10, and have their highest Pac-12 Tournament seed since being a four-seed in 2013. Colorado, whose eight conference wins were the best in the program since 2012-13, is listed as one of the last teams outside of the NCAA bubble, but a couple of upsets might put them right back in the mix.
Arizona (15-4, 13-4) - The Wildcats come to Las Vegas with the newly minted Pac-12 Player of the year in Aari McDonald, but also the sting of a pair of late-season losses to Stanford and Arizona State. Arizona needs to find its offensive groove, averaging 61.2 points a game in its last five games, including a season-low 48 points against the Cardinal.
Oregon (13-7, 10-7) - The Ducks have lost four-of-five games to close out the regular season and need to, as coach Kelly Graves put it after Sunday’s loss to the Beavers, “right the ship a little bit. I'm still confident — forever an optimist. I feel like we can, but at some point we've got to actually do it."
Most intriguing first-round matchup
USC vs. Arizona State - The Women of Troy and the Sun Devils split the regular season series in a pair of single-digit thrillers, with USC winning the last matchup 65-57 on January 31. USC had a tough finish, with losses to Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA to cap the regular-season schedule. Arizona State, who finished with seven postponed games this season, is buoyed late by Sunday’s regular season finale update of rival Arizona and hopes to make a postseason impression in Vegas.
Most intriguing potential second-round matchup
Oregon vs. Oregon State - A rematch of Sunday’s season finale could be in the offing, with the Beavers coming in as the hotter team, but the Ducks with the national ranking. Oregon played on Sunday without freshman point guard Te-Hina Paopao, who was named first team All-Pac-12 on Monday. Oregon State won for the first time in four matchups.
Five players to watch
Haley Jones, Stanford - The Cardinal's multi-dimensional threat missed last year’s tournament with a knee injury and is going to be looking to make up for lost time. For a good portion of the season, Jones led Stanford in scoring, rebounding and assists and she leads the Pac-12 with a 54.6 shooting percentage from the floor and in defensive rebounding.
Charlisse Leger-Walker, Washington State - The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, the first freshman ever to lead the league in scoring, led her team to some very big wins this season and will be looking for a couple more to give the Cougars a strong shot at an NCAA Tournament berth.
Mya Hollingshed, Colorado - Hollingshed has been averaging better than 17 points a game down the stretch of the regular season and is already established as one of the Pac-12’s top rebounders, ranking second in total rebounds and defensive rebounds.
Jordan Sanders, USC - The graduate transfer is USC’s second-leading scorer at 11.9 points a game and is shooting 46.8 percent from beyond the arc, ranking her second in the Pac-12 this season.
Taya Hanson, Arizona State - The Sun Devils junior has scored in double digits in 13 of her last 14 games and ranks third in the Pac-12 with 51 made three-pointers.
Kiana Williams, Stanford - Stanford’s senior point guard is one of the headiest, steadiest, most consistent players in the nation. Her leadership on the floor and off has propelled a young Stanford team through this unusual season. And her three-point shooting will change a game on a dime.
Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA - Onyenwere has left open the possibility that she could return to the Bruins next season, but paying tribute to her extraordinary game still seems entirely appropriate.
Aari McDonald, Arizona - McDonald made it clear that she would be moving on to the WNBA Draft at the end of the season. McDonald has scored in double figures in 85 straight games, the longest-active streak in NCAA.
Don’t be surprised if …
Oregon State ends up in the title game. The Beavers might be a five seed, but they are playing that well on both ends of the floor right now. And they are confident. They will be the team that none of the top seeds want to face on the way to a title.
The Big 3 Questions
Who could be the surprise team in this tournament? If the Buffaloes can take down the No. 1 team in the country, as they did against Stanford earlier this season, then their ability to shake up this tournament with a surprise win or two doesn’t seem at all out of the realm of possibility.
How many teams will keep playing after Vegas? This has been an undeniable top-heavy season in the Pac-12, with four teams consistently in or hanging close to the Top 10 all season. But there are seven Pac-12 teams ranked in the NCAA Net Top 50 -Stanford, UCLA, Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado, with the latter two teams still needing to shore up their resumes to get an NCAA look. Arizona State is definitely a WNIT candidate at this point.
Can Stanford be challenged? Yes. Colorado and UCLA figured out how to beat Stanford this season. Arizona State, Oregon came within single-digits. But Stanford’s depth, length, scoring options and cohesive play mean that any time with designs on the upset are going to have to play their best game to do it.