Michelle Smith Women's Basketball Notebook: 2021 Pac-12 Media Day
Let’s add this to the now famous list of “Tara-isms” from Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer.
“We aren’t driving down the freeway looking in the rearview mirror,” the Hall of Famer said. “That would be a crash.”
Translation: the Cardinal can’t afford to spend a lot of time dwelling on the program’s first NCAA Championship since 1992 if they intend on winning another.
Stanford opens the 2021-22 season as the team picked by 11 of the league’s 12 coaches to win the Pac-12 championship. They may well be the No. 1 team in the country when the first national polls are released considering that they are returning 12 of 13 players who were on last year’s title-winning team.
But even the sport’s winningest coach has to admit that starting a new season as the defending national champion puts “a spring in our steps.”
It also ups the ante for both Stanford and the rest of the conference, coming off a spring in which two Pac-12 teams — the Cardinal and the Arizona Wildcats — played in the national title game for the first time ever.
“Coming off a championship run, we know what it takes, and where we want to go,” said Cardinal junior guard Haley Jones, a preseason All-American candidate. “We have a very big target on our back and we welcome that.”
Jones was joined by senior wing Lexie Hull on Tuesday at Pac-12 Women's Basketball Media Day.
Both Jones and Hull were sporting bruises from some physical, intense early-season practices that include the addition of four freshmen (making up the nation’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class - and the program’s first graduate transfer.
“Practice has been super competitive, and if you aren’t out there diving for balls you might not play, my knees show that,” Hull said.
VanDerveer said while winning a championship is a great ending to a season, she most wants to see her team “compete” and play for one another.
“We’re confident, but we are also realistic,” VanDerveer said about the difficulty of winning an NCAA title, pointing out the number of All-American-laden teams she has coached that were unable to win one.
“There are maybe 10 teams that could have won one and didn’t and this team did,” VanDerveer said. “It wasn’t a given.
“I just want to see our team compete. It’s not just winning but it’s about how you feel about winning with your team in a circle after the game.
Arizona changed, yet not different
On the other side of that 2021 NCAA championship bracket, life has absolutely changed for the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona has sold nearly 6,000 season tickets, a program record. Head coach Adia Barnes became a national media star and a spokesperson for working mothers in the game, and players such as Sam Thomas also found themselves in the spotlight.
Thomas was asked to speak before Congress in Washington D.C. as part of a group of collegiate athletes offering their perspectives on the Name/Image/Likeness (NIL) now available.
But for Barnes, every day on the court, not much has changed.
“We don’t prepare any differently,” said Barnes, adding that while her team made history by reaching the NCAA title game, “The reality is, we didn’t win. But now our standards are really high. We’ve had a taste of success and we want more.”
The Wildcats went quickly from a team that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since to the NCAA title game. With the loss of centerpiece guard Aari McDonald and the addition of six new players, the Wildcats are picked to finish fifth in the coaches’ poll.
Arizona lost just two players from last year’s team — McDonald and forward Trinity Baptiste. They have added four incoming freshmen and transfers Taylor Chavez from Oregon and Koi Love from Vanderbilt.
Barnes said she doesn’t care about outside expectations. The standards for the program have changed regardless of a prediction or a ranking over her five seasons in Tucson and certainly after Cinderella run to the title game.
“We want to go back to the Final Four every year, that’s the standard,” said senior forward Cate Reese. “Before it was just to get to the (NCAA) tournament, but now we know what it takes to get there and we know what to do. We know that expectations from other people is that now that Aari is gone, it’s not the same. But I disagree with them. We’ve been able to get players. We have transfers that are good. People believe if they come here they will do big things.”
Barnes said she feels as if “America fell in love with Arizona” last spring.
“We experience so many good things that are great for our program and so much momentum,” Barnes said. "It doesn't feel any different and I'm not busier when it comes to media. I really don't think about it that way. I just go out and do what I do. It's always about how you finish in the end. I'm excited about what we have and excited to see how we put it all together."
Leger-Walker sisters reunite to lead Cougars
The Leger-Walker sisters, the scoring guards from New Zealand who led Washington State to a national ranking as well the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades, are back together to help the Cougars take their next big step forward.
Charlisse Leger-Walker was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last spring, a breakout star who finished third in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 ppg) in her first season on the Palouse.
Krystal Leger-Walker, a senior last season, has chosen to return to play alongside her sister for one more season.
Cougars coach Kamie Ethridge, who received a contract extension several weeks ago, said she wanted to give Krystal the space to make her decision. She joked that Krystal “milked” the decision for a while to leave her guessing.
“It’s always good to keep Coach E on her toes,” Krystal said. “It was also a no-brainer decision for me to come back.”
The Cougars were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 a year after they were picked to finish last.
“People think I’m going to be mad about that,” Ethridge said. “Our expectations are bigger and better and we are not afraid of that. This is the best league in the country and no one is getting worse. We won’t have any games where we are beating someone by 20 or 30 points. We are going to get by minute by minute. And we have to do all the things we need to do.
“We will have something of a target on our back, and we won’t surprise anybody, but I think we are prepared for that and our players have improved themselves.”
Talia’s Freshman Season 2.0
Oregon State guard Talia Von Oelhoffen is preparing for her freshman year of college basketball. Again.
Von Oelhoffen came to Corvallis last January, opting to graduate high school early and begin her collegiate career after her high school senior season was derailed by the COVID pandemic. The 13 games she played with the Beavers, in which she averaged 24.3 minutes and 11.3 points per game, did not count against her eligibility.
And so Von Oelhoffen is a freshman once again. One with quite a lot of quality experience under her belt, including the Pac-12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
“Playing at this level, you don’t know until you experience it,” Von Oelhoffen said. “Playing behind (graduated guard) Aleah Goodman, watching that up close made me a better player.”
Beavers coach Scott Rueck called Von Oelhoffen’s contributions last year “remarkable”.
“She picked up our system in two practices and played in a Pac-12 game two days later,” Rueck said. “It’s amazing and then everything she did the remainder of the year. There are certain things we can’t replicate, guarding Kiana Williams or Anna Wilson or the guards from South Carolina. She has taken those lessons and been honest with herself about where I need to go.
“She is in the best shape of her life. Having her experience last year is a massive advantage for her. She will be better prepared for it.”
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.