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Michelle Smith Pac-12 women's basketball mailbag - Feb. 22, 2022

Feb 22, 2022
Stanford Athletics

The answers are coming as quickly as the Pac-12 Tournament bracket reveal in a few short days.

With one week left in the regular season, the league has its regular-season champion in the Stanford Cardinal, and nearly everything else seems up in the air.

Let’s get to some questions from our mailbag. The submissions are always appreciated.

Is this Stanford team better than last season?

At the start of the season, it was apparent that the Cardinal missed the on-court leadership of four-year point guard Kiana Williams. It showed in early losses to Texas and South Florida, and even at the end of the South Carolina game. The turnovers were piling up and a bit of poise seemed lacking.

But Stanford has won 15 straight games since that loss to the top-ranked Gamecocks before Christmas and the point-guard-by-committee arrangement, in which Haley Jones and the Hull sisters have taken turns directing the action on the floor, is working out pretty well.

With a pair of wins at Maples this weekend against Washington State and Washington, the Cardinal could become the first Pac-12 team since 2012 to finish the season undefeated. For the record, they were the last ones to do it back then as well.

But the question was, are they better? They are more battle-tested. They are experienced. They have size and depth. But the statistics are, so far, a bit short of last season. They are averaging 75.5 points a game, a little under the 77.7 they averaged last season. Their field-goal and 3-point percentages and rebounding numbers are slightly under where they were last season.

Yet when the game is on the line, Stanford has locked in and finished strong. And that doesn’t show up on the box score, except of course, for the win-loss column.

ESPN's Bracketology has had Washington State and Oregon State as bubble teams. What will it take for both teams to solidify their spot in the NCAA tournament?

Washington State’s weekend sweep of the Arizona schools and its newfound position in a second-place tie in the conference standings should do a whole lot for the Cougars’ NCAA prospects.

They are playing their best basketball down the stretch — winning eight of their last 10 games — and that counts for a lot with the selection committee. They have won more games already this season overall (18) than they did a year ago, and tied the program record for Pac-12 wins (10). And if they win one of two games in the Bay Area this weekend, they will clinch a top-four tournament seed and a first-round bye. This morning's Bracketology update has WSU as a No. 10 seed in the Wichita Region.

Oregon State, at 13-10 and 6-7, salvaged a weekend split by rallying late to beat Cal, and that win keeps their NCAA hopes alive heading into a regular-season closing weekend at Utah and Colorado, two teams with respective NET rankings of 25 and 31 who are also looking to solidify their NCAA resumes.

For the Beavers, it will be a long road through the Pac-12 Tournament as they can finish no higher than fifth and won’t get a first round bye. ESPN's Bracketology has OSU as the first team out.

How will the injury to Cate Reese affect Arizona the rest of the way including their seeding for the Pac12 and NCAA tournament?

It was heartening to hear that Reese doesn’t appear to have structural damage to her injured shoulder, dislocated during the Wildcats’ loss at Washington State on Sunday. That leaves the door open for her to be able to return at some point before the end of the season.

But losing Reese comes at a tough time for Arizona, who were looking to build momentum heading into the postseason. Arizona’s loss cost them their top-10 spot in the AP rankings this week as they fell to No. 12. Winning a pair of games at home against USC and UCLA this weekend will be important if the Wildcats want to prevent a slip too close to the line where they would be in jeopardy of missing a top-16 seed and a host bid for the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona would also like to stay away from facing Stanford before the title game of the Pac-12 Tournament and would need to be in the No. 3 seed position to do so. They will need to win out this weekend and Washington State would have to lose once for that to happen.

Any chance at all that UCLA makes it into the tournament?

Prospects are definitely dimming for the Bruins, who are all square at 11-11 overall with a 6-8 Pac-12 record heading into the closing weekend with a road trip to Arizona and then Arizona State. UCLA’s NET is No. 58, with seven Pac-12 teams in front of them. UCLA would likely need a strong weekend showing in the desert — the Bruins have won just two games on the road this season — as well as a couple of wins in the Pac-12 Tournament to be in the conversation.

What storylines and potential matchups are you most looking forward to at the Pac-12 tournament?

The Vegas storylines will be much more clear this time next week, but watching to see how Oregon rebounds from its tough loss to Stanford on Sunday and positions itself to contend for the conference tournament title will be something to keep an eye on.

And then there are the Mountain teams, Utah and Colorado, which are in strong NCAA position at this point, but looking to continue to build on improving their seed over the next two weeks. The Utes haven’t been in the NCAA field since 2011. Colorado hasn’t been since 2013.