Michelle Smith: Competitive Pac-12 women's basketball season shaping up
Last April was a dizzying moment for the Pac-12, watching two conference teams - Stanford and Arizona - vie for the NCAA championship. Stanford ended up with its first title since 1992, Arizona planted itself firmly on the national map and this season is shaping up to be a compelling follow-up to that fairy tale ending.
While injuries and COVID-related scheduling impacts have wreaked their share of havoc thus far, the Pac-12 season is shaping up to be very competitive, with national title contenders, improved squads from the bottom of last year's standings and some great new talent at both ends of the spectrum, from freshmen to transfers.
Let’s take a look.
Five questions to ask
Will Stanford’s point guard situation settle in time for a title defense? Kiana Williams ran the show for four years at Stanford and the Cardinal - despite its success - look at times as if they are searching for someone who can fill a leadership void. The Hull sisters and Haley Jones may be running point by committee at this point and maybe that’s the way it’s going to stay for the 2022 Pac-12 season.
Who will be the surprise? Will it be Cal, the team that won just one conference game a year ago, but is now led by high-scoring freshman Jayda Curry, who currently leads the Pac-12 in scoring? Or will it be a Utah team that is 8-3 with a 6-1 record at home and some welcome offensive punch from another pair of freshman in Jenna Johnson and Gianna Kneepkens. The Utes rank fourth nationally in scoring offense (85.4), eighth in assists (19.1 apg) and are doing it with a balanced lineup that features a dozen players averaging double-figure minutes.
Will Oregon get healthy and get back to being elite? The Ducks (7-4) have played too many games already this season without standouts Nyara Sabally and Te-Hina Paopao, not to mention transfer Endyia Rogers. Getting those three players back in the lineup should quickly leapfrog Oregon into contending status in the conference race. The trio has combined to appear in 147 minutes and was on the court together for the first time this season last Sunday against Carroll College.
Is Colorado ready for a top-five finish? The Buffaloes finished their nonconference schedule with a perfect 11-0 record, the second undefeated preseason under head coach JR Payne, and an 8-0 record at home. Veteran players like Mya Hollingshed, Quay Miller, Lesila Finau and Jaylyn Sherrod look poised to take the program to a new level. That new level would be a top-five conference finish, the highest for the program since Colorado came in fourth in 2013 and made its last NCAA Tournament appearance.
Are Arizona and UCLA prepared for a higher degree of difficulty? According to the NCAA NET rankings, Arizona’s strength of schedule sits at 126th nationally after having to cancel its Dec. 19 game vs. Texas (No. 6 NET) due to COVID protocols. UCLA, which had to cancel its Dec. 19 home game against Ohio State (No. 24 NET), is at 159. While the scheduled meeting between the two last weekend was postponed, the coming Pac-12 season will present some challenging days for both. It will be exciting to see how they respond.
Upcoming games to keep an eye on
In addition to last weekend's Arizona/UCLA postponement, an intriguing matchup between Colorado and Oregon State suffered the same fate. The Buffaloes, which rank ninth nationally in scoring defense (50.5 ppg), would have had an immediate opportunity for a statement road win against one of the conference’s strongest programs over the past decade in Scott Rueck’s Beavers, winners of four of their past five. Oregon State is looking for a payoff on a tough preseason schedule, which included November losses to then-No. 12 Michigan and Notre Dame. The Beavers are second in the nation in defensive rebounding at 33.2 per game. CU is now scheduled to begin its conference slate this weekend by hosting USC and UCLA, while the Beavers are on the road at California and Stanford.
January 7 - Oregon at Stanford. One of the marquee matchups of the entire Pac-12 season over the past few years, the Ducks and the Cardinal will clash early and set an early tone. Oregon is hoping to be healthier and deeper heading into this game and beginning the process of re-establishing itself as one of the country’s best teams, while Stanford will be facing yet another top-tier opponent after a nonconference schedule in which it faced six ranked opponents.
January 14 - Stanford at Colorado. The Buffaloes were one of only two teams to beat the national champions last season and will be facing them after the Cardinal has a tough home weekend against the Oregon schools. Colorado is definitely going to feel like it can win this game on its home floor and it should be a great matchup inside with Cameron Brink and Mya Hollingshed.
January 30 - Arizona at Stanford. This first rematch of the 2021 NCAA championship game would be a top-four matchup if it happened today, and it still might be. Arizona will be looking to prove that it still belongs in the title conversation and has a stifling defense, one that is seventh nationally in opponent scoring, allowing just 49.7 points per game.
Lindsay Gottlieb, USC. The former Cal coach took an assistant coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers three years ago and then returned to the Pac-12 to take the helm in Los Angeles ready to rebuild the Trojans program and bring it back to the national elite. USC went 7-3 in the nonconference and is currently scheduled to open its conference slate on Friday night at Colorado.
Te-Hina Paopao, Oregon. A right foot injury kept Paopao, a member of both the All-Pac-12 and Pac-12 All-Freshman teams in 2021, out of the postseason and she has played just 15 total minutes this season. Her return will be a big boost for a Ducks team that has seen too many injuries already.
Kennedy Brown, Oregon State. Brown is back on the floor for the Beavers after sitting out since February 2020 with an ACL injury. The 6-foot-6 forward started 23 games as a freshman and her return is big for Oregon State. So far, Brown is averaging 7.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
Missy Peterson, Washington. The Huskies’ senior guard missed the 2020-21 season after sustaining a knee injury in fall training camp. Back on the floor, Peterson is settling in under new head coach Tina Langley, averaging 5.4 points and 4.3 rebounds a game.
Keep an eye on
Bella Murekatete, Washington State. The 6-3 junior center from Rwanda is averaging 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds a game and is second in the Pac-12 with 26 total blocks this season.
Jade Loville, Arizona State. The senior guard and Boise State transfer showed just how much she will be able to help the Sun Devils with a 34-point performance against San Diego on Dec. 18. It is the single-game high in the Pac-12 this season.
Greta Kampschroeder, Oregon State. The freshman guard from Naperville, Illinois, has scored in double figures on OSU’s last two games, including seven 3-pointers, establishing herself as a perimeter scoring threat heading into Pac12 play.
Hannah Jump, Stanford. The junior guard from San Jose has scored in double figures in five of the Cardinal's last six games, including 21 3-pointers over that stretch. She ranks fourth in scoring for Stanford at 9.9 points a game.
Ilmar’I Thomas, UCLA. The graduate transfer from Oakland has given UCLA another key scoring threat, scoring in double figures in seven of eight games and averaging 18.0 points a game heading into conference play.