‘The league’s going to point out out’: Pac-12 able to flex in ultimate postseason run


STANFORD, Calif. — The Maples Pavilion crowd was more and more stressed. The No. 4 Stanford Cardinal had been dealing with the Fifteenth-ranked USC Trojans of their sole regular-season assembly, and USC freshman JuJu Watkins was on a heater.

The phenom got here out of the locker room with 25 factors, however murmurs emerged from the stands as Watkins sank basket after basket to begin the second half.

A pull-up 3-pointer in transition. Free throws. A midrange baseline jumper. A step-back on the free throw line.

After Watkins swished her subsequent shot — a transition 3 from the identical spot as the primary — Stanford followers might solely oooh and aaaah.

USC downed Stanford 67-58, and Watkins completed with a school-record 51 factors, essentially the most by any males’s or ladies’s Division I participant this season. Towards the Pac-12 perennial energy. On the Cardinal’s residence ground, no much less.

Watkins’ 50-piece stands alone, however fierce matchups between top-15 groups and highlight-reel performances had been nightly occurrences within the Pac-12 this season. Convention play was a digital gauntlet of heavyweight clashes, the place groups both additional strengthened their résumés or took one on the chin late Friday evening in #Pac12AfterDark, even when a lot of the nation was sleeping.

No single convention influenced the higher echelon of the 2024 ladies’s NCAA event bracket greater than the Pac-12. USC — which beat Stanford once more final week to win its first Pac-12 event title since 2014 — earned its first No. 1 seed in almost 4 many years. Pac-12 groups made up 1 / 4 of the highest 16, with USC, No. 2 seeds Stanford and UCLA, and third-seeded Oregon State incomes the proper to host early-round video games when the event opens Friday. Seven Pac-12 groups are within the bracket, tying the league document.

The convention as soon as pejoratively known as “Stanford and the 11 Dwarfs” has this yr staked its declare because the nation’s finest league.

The one downside? The Pac-12 as we all know it should quickly stop to exist.

The disintegration of the convention — first set in movement when UCLA and USC declared in June 2022 they’d be departing for the Large Ten — has loomed over faculty athletics for the previous eight months. Upon the convention’s failure to safe a profitable tv deal, eight extra colleges bolted for the Large Ten, Large 12 or ACC, leaving the Pac-12 with simply Oregon State and Washington State.

And no income sport may mourn the Pac-12’s finish as deeply as ladies’s basketball.

“It is simply unlucky as a result of we have constructed one thing actually nice,” Teresa Gould, newly appointed Pac-12 commissioner, advised ESPN, “and for various different causes and different circumstances and penalties, one thing that’s actually, actually particular is now going to be pulled aside.”

For the groups that can bear the Pac-12 banner one ultimate time this postseason, there’d be no higher ending than for the league to have a thunderous March, for the “Convention of Champions” to convey residence yet one more. And this yr greater than most, that is likely to be potential.



USC Trojans’ NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for USC’s NCAA event prospects.

COACH JR PAYNE, in certainly one of her first years at Colorado, watched as Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer was interviewed on the court docket at Seattle’s KeyArena after successful the Pac-12 event. VanDerveer spoke to the league’s power, mentioned the Pac-12 helped put together the Cardinal for the postseason and talked about every program by title.

“It blew my thoughts,” Payne advised ESPN. “I keep in mind going, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s truly going to speak about us.'”

For as good of a gesture because it was — Payne mentioned her Buffs on the time weren’t excellent — the league wasn’t but the top-to-bottom juggernaut it’s immediately. Outdoors of three-time nationwide champion Stanford, Pac-12 colleges did not persistently make noise nationally. Earlier than Cal‘s 2013 run, solely the Cardinal had superior to a Ultimate 4 below the Pac-10/12 banner (the league expanded to 12 groups in 2011). Geography and time zones additionally labored towards the league.

“I know that folks did not take our convention very critically,” former Stanford star and two-time Pac-12 Participant of the Yr Nneka Ogwumike advised ESPN. “I simply really feel as if we had been uncared for in a variety of other ways.”

The previous decade flipped the narrative. The 2012 launch of the Pac-12 Community extensively expanded distribution of Pac-12 ladies’s basketball video games and helped in recruiting. Extra West Coast stars stayed nearer to residence — akin to Californians Kelsey Plum (Washington) and Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon), who each led their applications to the Ultimate 4. The pattern expanded previous family names, too. Eleven of the 24 2022 McDonald’s All People, from all around the nation, had been Pac-12 signees.

The uptick in tv publicity created a way of accountability. “Impulsively,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck advised ESPN, “you wanted to be good at ladies’s basketball as a result of it was on TV, and other people had been paying consideration.” And the extra new applications did properly, the extra others felt they might be a part of the get together — or wanted to maintain up. When teaching jobs opened, colleges tended to search for confirmed winners with expertise constructing successful cultures. Athletic departments deepened their funding in ladies’s basketball, together with bigger salaries.



Stanford Cardinal’s NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Stanford’s NCAA event prospects.

Faculties started to schedule extra deliberately too. Former Washington coach Mike Neighbors offered a plan a couple of decade in the past recommending the convention’s higher groups schedule extra high quality nonconference opponents with NCAA event seeding in thoughts, whereas the others ought to schedule to win as many video games as potential.

By way of all of it, one collective mentality fashioned: “Again the Pac.”

Coaches realized for the league to develop, they needed to stand “uniquely unified behind ladies’s basketball,” USC’s Lindsay Gottlieb, who additionally beforehand coached at Cal for 11 years, advised ESPN. To assist themselves, additionally they had to assist one another.

“We’re all totally different, and coaches are bizarre individuals, rivals and quirky,” Utah‘s Lynne Roberts advised ESPN. “However there’s such a degree of respect and understanding that, ‘If she’s good and he is good, and I am good, it’ll make us all higher,’ versus ‘I would like you to fail. I would like you to fail, and I need to win.'”



UCLA Bruins’ NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for UCLA’s NCAA event prospects.

The tone was set by VanDerveer, who condemned damaging recruiting inside the league, and in coaches conferences all the time made it about what was finest for the convention. Coaches agreed on the significance of publicly uplifting opposing Pac-12 groups.

“It was noticeable from the get-go that it was very totally different than the opposite leagues I would been in the place it was simply fear about your self,” Neighbors, now the pinnacle coach at Arkansas, advised ESPN. “The league actually cared in regards to the league.”

The outcomes confirmed. Since 2013, eight totally different groups have gained a Pac-12 regular-season or event title. Over the previous 10 seasons, the Pac-12’s 78.2% nonconference successful proportion is the very best of any league. In that span, each Pac-12 faculty has appeared within the NCAA event — solely the SEC may declare that — and its 65% successful proportion within the Large Dance ranks finest amongst Energy 5 conferences. After managing two or three bids annually from 2008 to ’12, the convention has despatched no less than six groups to every of the previous seven tournaments.

“They don’t seem to be the underdog anymore … they’re there,” Neighbors mentioned. “They’ve earned the respect of everyone I’ve are available in contact with in ladies’s basketball.”

SEMINAL MOMENTS IN the Pac-12’s ultimate season occurred in a non-Pac-12 metropolis: Las Vegas. On the opening day of the season at T-Cell Enviornment, USC and Colorado upset then-No. 7 Ohio State and top-ranked LSU, respectively, within the Corridor of Fame Sequence. 4 months later, throughout the Strip at MGM Grand Backyard Enviornment, the convention held its ultimate event.

The quarterfinals had been so stacked that Gottlieb posited the double-overtime Oregon State-Colorado matchup was virtually an Elite Eight sport. Their semifinal the subsequent day towards UCLA? Mainly a Ultimate 4 assembly, Gottlieb mentioned — no less than, “I hope we’re not dealing with a group pretty much as good as UCLA previous to that.”



Oregon State Beavers’ NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Oregon State’s NCAA event prospects.

These moments bookend a season that has signaled the Pac-12 is essentially the most formidable league within the nation. Following USC’s and Colorado’s wins, 5 Pac-12 groups had been ranked within the prime 10, and 6 had been within the ballot total. The league’s 32-0 begin to nonconference motion was the longest such streak over the previous 25 years. Coming into the NCAA event, the Pac-12 is the highest NET league, with UCLA (8), USC (8) and Stanford (7) boasting essentially the most top-25 NET wins. South Carolina has six.

After Stanford’s semifinal win over Oregon State, VanDerveer proclaimed, “Would not it’s enjoyable to have 4 [Pac-12] groups within the Ultimate 4?” That is not possible, however the league might ship a number of groups to Cleveland.

“Whoever will get into the postseason is as prepared as anybody anyplace as a result of we have already been by way of what seems like a postseason by the point we get there.”

Oregon State coach Scott Rueck on the rigorous Pac-12 season

Stanford captured its twenty seventh regular-season title in February, a becoming conclusion for the Pac-12’s swan music, and VanDerveer turned faculty basketball’s all-time wins chief in January. Senior Cameron Brink, whom Ogwumike calls the “quintessential Stanford ladies’s basketball participant,” earned Pac-12 Participant of the Yr, and he or she’s the projected No. 2 choose in April’s WNBA draft.

Led by level guard Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado — a No. 5 seed within the NCAA event — asserted itself into the contender dialog by changing into the primary group to defeat a defending champion in its season opener since 1995. Picked tenth within the preseason ballot, Oregon State’s Rueck may need his finest group in years behind a younger roster that includes budding sophomore Raegan Beers and no seniors.

Accidents have impacted No. 5 seed Utah, the convention’s preseason favourite, however the Utes turned heads in December as 2023 Pac-12 Participant of the Yr Alissa Pili scored 37 factors on South Carolina in a good loss — prompting Gamecocks coach Daybreak Staley to declare afterward, “It is not possible to cease her.” Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is the one different participant to attain extra towards the Gamecocks over the previous two years.

After going undefeated in nonconference play, together with wins over UConn and Ohio State, the Bruins captured their finest rating in program historical past (No. 2), anchored by a program-shifting, intraconference switch in sophomore Lauren Betts. Their crosstown showdowns with USC broke every program’s attendance information with a mixed 24,000-plus followers.

However it was the Trojans who had been the final group standing in Las Vegas earlier this month, Watkins putting her championship hat atop her trademark bun, McKenzie Forbes breaking into tears when offered the trophy for many excellent participant, and Clarice Akunwafo slapping the USC sticker on the ultimate line of the event bracket, with crimson and yellow confetti littering the ground.

Watkins’ affect is undisputed. She’s the nation’s second-leading scorer and presumptive nationwide freshman of the yr. On the time of her dedication, when 2023’s prime recruit determined to remain residence in Los Angeles, the once-iconic Trojans hadn’t made the event since 2014. They have not made it previous the primary weekend of the event since 1994, with Lisa Leslie.



Colorado Buffaloes’ NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Colorado’s NCAA event prospects.

Now the Trojans have captured their first No. 1 seed since 1986 — Cheryl Miller’s senior yr — propelled by Watkins, who’s shaping as much as be the subsequent star of a era.

“I am unsure if I’ve met younger athletes and younger ladies which can be constructed like her,” Ogwumike mentioned. “I actually was impressed by not simply her character and stature, however I used to be additionally very impressed by it.”

Coaches insist the league has by no means been stronger from prime to backside, they usually have been “simply making an attempt to outlive” the final two months of league competitors, Arizona coach Adia Barnes mentioned. Regardless of having solely seven scholarship gamers, the Eleventh-seeded Wildcats acquired an at-large invitation after successful 5 of their final eight convention video games. Washington State (whose star Charlisse Leger-Walker was misplaced midseason because of harm), Washington and Cal had been amongst bubble groups.

“It is this stunning degree of competitors that calls for every little thing you’ve each evening,” Rueck mentioned. “Whoever will get into the postseason is as prepared as anybody anyplace as a result of we have already been by way of what seems like a postseason by the point we get there.”



Utah Utes’ NCAA ladies’s event preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Utah’s NCAA event prospects.

AS NORTHERN CALIFORNIA youngsters, Roberts had a Stanford ladies’s basketball poster on her wall rising up, and as a sophomore in highschool Shut went to VanDerveer’s first basketball camp. A youthful Barnes could not anticipate her dad and mom to come back to her video games at Arizona, a drivable distance from San Diego; in 1997-98, she gained Pac-10 Participant of the Yr.

Neighbors nonetheless has an indication in his bar at residence from a “Faculty GameDay” at Washington that claims, “The Pac-12, no less than we will rely.” It’s going to be a pleasant collector’s merchandise now.

Nearly each emotion has hit the coaches over the previous eight months. At first, the shock and dismay of the league’s dismantlement — “A type of belongings you suppose won’t ever go away,” Payne mentioned.

“I am extraordinarily happy with the place we’re and what we have performed, and I am extraordinarily pained about what is going on to occur sooner or later.”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer

“It has been the mannequin convention,” Barnes added, citing Pac-12 colleges’ sturdy lecturers, athletics (together with Olympic sports activities traditions) and take care of student-athletes.

Ogwumike felt nearly confused by the information of convention realignment. “What provides slightly bit to my obfuscation,” she mentioned, “is now we have so many sturdy groups within the Pac proper now, and it isn’t going to be there anymore.”

Coaches are trying ahead to recent opponents in new leagues, new types of play to scheme towards, new cities to discover. However actuality set in because the lasts got here round. The weekend Watkins scored 51 marked Gottlieb’s ultimate journey to the Bay Space. USC affiliate head coach Beth Burns, who briefly labored at Stanford within the 2000s, went for a run on the Palo Alto campus solely to wonder if she’d ever return.

A few of these matchups shall be maintained with Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado becoming a member of the Large 12; UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon the Large Ten; and Stanford and Cal the ACC. The hope is others ultimately will be restored in nonconference play.

However long-standing regional pairings and rivalries are actually gone, as is a distinguished West Coast convention to encapsulate all of them.

“I am extraordinarily happy with the place we’re and what we have performed,” VanDerveer advised ESPN, “and I am extraordinarily pained about what is going on to occur sooner or later.”

Nobody possible feels the load of change greater than VanDerveer, who whereas not hiding her unhappiness has continued to champion the Pac-12 all through the season and categorical pleasure over Stanford’s transfer to the ACC.

“In some methods she’s taught us learn how to adore it and rejoice it and embrace the legacy, but in addition not impede progress,” Gould mentioned. “Now we have to show the web page and transfer ahead and simply hope that girls’s basketball on all 12 of those campuses continues to be a precedence the best way it has been.”

However in an ever-changing panorama of faculty sports activities, a sliver of optimism stays. Perhaps this is not the final chapter.

“There’s something deep down inside that appears to suppose by some means they’ll determine this factor out,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves advised ESPN, “and we’ll all be again collectively sooner or later, in some kind.”

There isn’t any telling what number of extra twists and turns would wish to occur for that to doubtlessly transpire, though instability is the established order lately in faculty athletics.

Regardless, the gamers and applications who originated from the Pac-12 will characterize the West Coast, and what as soon as was an awesome convention, shifting ahead. That begins now, with a nationwide championship up for the taking.

“I believe the league’s going to point out out,” Roberts mentioned. “Everybody has a variety of satisfaction.”

“The Pac 12 as we all know it should by no means be the identical,” Burns mentioned. “So why do not you be the final man on that line to win it?”

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