October 22, 2022 

2022-23 Pac-12 preview

Pac-12 Conference will highlight unprecedented infusion of young talent

Telling the larger story of the Pac-12 in 2022-23 will safely be one of a legendary coach taking another title shot with a deep, lengthy, athletic squad built for a long run, a significant number of programs with new faces and new futures thanks to the transfer portal and an overall elevation of the teams from the bottom up that will likely disrupt many a weekend for contenders come 2023.

And then there’s the unprecedented infusion of young talent, the conference pulling in seven of the top 10 recruits in the nation and 12 of the top 25. It’s an all-time high for the Pac-12 by a wide margin.

“It just goes to show the strength of the conference,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves told The Next. “We’ve had six teams in the Final Four in the last 10 years, nobody else can say that. We’ve got depth, really good coaching, Hall of Famers, good academic institutions and we are on the West Coast. Why wouldn’t you come here?”

Each team in this Pac-12 story will pen their own chapters of struggle, success and maybe even a little strife in this season upended by conference realignment that’s still two years away. Let’s take a look:

Arizona

The plot: Adia Barnes intends to continue to challenge at the top of the Pac-12 with returners such as fifth-year seniors Cate Reese, Shaina Pellington and post Lauren Ware and the addition of multiple transfers, including ASU’s Jade Loville (16.6 points a game in 2021-22 season), Oklahoma State’s Lauren Fields as well as a strong freshman class who are proving the potential to have early impact on the floor. After a Cinderella run to the NCAA title game in 2021, the Wildcats were disappointed with a second-round loss at home to North Carolina last spring. It’s clear Arizona is now trying to clear a higher bar and become a more offensively potent squad.

The twist: Helena Pueyo. The senior guard from Spain has upped her game and could be a bigger difference maker for the Wildcats than she was last season when she averaged 3.4 points a game. Barnes told the Tucson Daily Sun that she’s “amazed” by Pueyo’s progress. The best version of Pueyo would be a huge boost to the Arizona backcourt.

The spoiler: The Wildcats should come into conference play with a sterling record, thanks to a non-conference schedule that will likely only include one ranked opponent in Baylor on December 18. There is only one other major conference opponent on the schedule (Kansas).

Arizona freshman guard Kailyn Gilbert brings the ball up during a Wildcats preseason practice. Photo Courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

Arizona State

The plot: For the first time in nearly a quarter century, the Sun Devils will have a new head coach in Natasha Adair, leading a program that hasn’t finished higher than fifth in the Pac-12 standings in the last six seasons (finishing 9th in each of the past two years), and haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2019. Her challenge is to maintain the program’s expectation of hard-work and defensive intensity, while injecting some life into the offense in order to keep pace with the conference’s high-scoring squads. She will do that by looking for quick chemistry from a roster that includes six newcomers. Returning leading scorer Jadan Simmons averaged 9.6 points a game last season.

The twist: Treasure Hunt, the transfer from Kentucky, brings her SEC and NCAA experience to the ASU roster. Hunt started 29 games last season and averaged 6.9 points and 4.6 rebounds. Adair will be looking for stability and consistency from Hunt.

The spoiler: Based on the league’s schedule rotation, USC, UCLA, Washington and Washington State will be the four schools ASU will play only once during the regular season. Will be interesting to see how helpful that proves to be for a new team.

Cal

The plot: The Bears have struggled the past few seasons to keep pace in this conference — with just six Pac-12 wins total over the past three seasons — but the Bears have also had terrible luck, been hit hard by COVID and have played competitively enough to win more games than their record shows. This year just has to be better in Berkeley, doesn’t it? Cal returns three starters, including super sophomore Jayda Curry, and has five newcomers, including graduate Peanut Tuitele, who transferred after helping Colorado to the NCAA Tournament last season.

The twist: There’s even more help from the mountains. Kemery Martin, the Utah transfer, who was All-Pac-12 honorable mention two years in a row in 2020 and 2021 before seeing her playing time drop off for the Utes last season.

The spoiler: Curry will be the key for Cal, and possibly for the coaching future of Charmin Smith in Berkeley. She was the first player in Pac-12 history to be named Freshman of the Week three consecutive times to start the season. She was the first freshman in Pac-12 history to lead the conference in scoring and her 30-point game against Stanford showed that she can play among the conference elites. As Curry goes, so will Cal.


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Colorado

The plot: The Buffaloes are coming off of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013 and their first under head coach JR Payne. Colorado wants to keep that momentum going with a group anchored by guards Jaylyn Sherrod and Frida Formann and center Quay Miller. Colorado returns six of the nine players (including five of six guards) in last year’s rotation from the team that went 22-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA brackets.

The twist: With lots of transfer portal movements between Pac-12 teams this year, one of the most intriguing might be Aaronette Vonleh, who left Arizona to come to Boulder, admittedly impressed by Colorado after the Buffaloes upset her team in the Pac-12 Tournament in March. Payne said on media day that Vonleh will be a “hugely impactful” player for her team. Vonleh will be filling the void left by Mya Hollingshed.

The spoiler: The Buffaloes will play seven non-conference road games, the most they have played under Payne, who is in a position to win her 100th game at Colorado and the 200th game of her career early in the season. Colorado will have a pair of measuring stick games in November against Texas Tech and Tennessee on the road.

Oregon

The plot: After three straight Pac-12 titles, the Ducks are hungry to challenge for another one with a team that is a strong mix of returners (six) and newcomers (five). Back is one of the best backcourts in the nation in Endyia Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao, and one of the game’s most influential young players in post Sedona Prince. Four freshmen have potential for immediate impact, especially Chance Gray and Grace VanSlooten, two of the top 100 players in the nation.

The twist: Prince has never quite been the dominant player that she was billed to be coming out of high school, slowed by injuries early in her career, though she is well-known as a social media influencer. Last season she averaged 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in 19 starts. But Oregon needs more, especially if the Ducks hope to knock off Stanford, who have one of the best frontcourts in the country.

The spoiler: It’s going to be all about quick chemistry and good health for Graves’ team. Paopao and Rogers were both injured early last season and it held the Ducks back a bit. The ability to keep their best players on the floor will make the Ducks very, very dangerous.

Members of the Oregon women’s basketball team celebrate during a recent preseason practice. Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics.

Oregon State

The plot: The Beavers are in rebuild mode after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 and losing seven players to either graduation or transfer. Only one starter returns and that’s sophomore point guard Talia Von Oelhoffen, who led the team in scoring last season (13.7 ppg) and was an All-Pac-12 performer. A pair of key transfers can help the Beavers’ quickly with Shalexxus Aaron (USC/Texas Southern) and Bendu Yeaney (Arizona), not to mention a recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the country. That class is headlined by forward Timea Gardiner, the No. 6-ranked recruit in the class and a McDonald’s All-American along with forward Raegan Beers.

The twist: Scott Rueck hasn’t experienced this much change to his roster in 12 seasons in Corvallis. But Rueck has seen his fair share of transitioning from star players and transfers through the years, but scope and scale aside, this will be nothing new.

The spoiler: One of the tallest players in the country at 6’9, Jelena Mitrovic of Serbia started in all four of Oregon State’s WNIT games last spring. A strong season from her could take this team quickly from sleeper to contender.


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Stanford

The plot: The Cardinal are still in championship-or-bust mode with Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, Fran Belibi and the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 6’7 Lauren Betts. This will be a different team without the heart-and-hustle inspiration of the Hull twins and the defense of Anna Wilson, but one that is still heavily favored to win the Pac-12 and expected to be back in the Final Four (the program’s 16th) for the third straight season.

The twist: On a stacked roster, look out for Kiki Iriafen inside. The Los Angeles native had some very bright moments as a freshman last season, shooting 57 percent from the floor and playing in 33 games. A big jump will make Stanford scary-deep.

The spoiler: After a couple of years of meat-grinding non-conference schedules, Tara VanDerveer has pulled back…a little. Yes, Stanford will take on South Carolina and Tennessee before Christmas, but beyond a home game against Gonzaga, it’s a little quiet by the Cardinal’s usual standards.

UCLA

The plot: The Bruins are playing in their second-to-last in the Pac-12 hoping to challenge the conference’s elite programs with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, including star guard Kiki Rice. UCLA missed the NCAA Tournament last season, injuries derailing their run of five straight trips to the NCAA bracket. But UCLA reached the WNIT semifinals, setting the stage for a brighter season in 2022-23.

The twist: Graduate transfer guard Gina Conti was supposed to make her big impact last season, but injury forced her to the bench. Now Conti, the transfer from Wake Forest, is ready to join Charisma Osborne in the backcourt and As a senior for the Deacons in 2021, Conti averaged 13.8 points and 4.6 assists per game, starting her final 86 games.

The spoiler: Forward Angela Ducalic is expected to miss the season with a torn ACL sustained while playing for Serbia in the FIBA World Cup tournament. The 6’4 post has struggled with injuries throughout her career and UCLA was hoping for big contributions from her down low.

USC

The plot: Like their L.A. compatriots, the Trojans are playing out the string in the Pac-12 before heading to the Big Ten in 2024 and Lindsay Gottlieb is still molding the program in her image after a promising first season at the helm a year ago. Rayah Marshall, an All-Pac-12 selection, is the highest-profile returner after averaging 11.2 points a game and 7.7 rebounds a game last season, along with perimeter shooter Alyson Miura (a team-leading 38 3s). Gottlieb mined the transfer portal for seven new players, including South Carolina’s Destiny Littleton and Oregon’s Taylor Bigby.

The twist: Gottlieb gave birth to her second child, a baby girl, on Saturday. She will likely be away from the team for a few weeks, and presumably back for the season opener. Beth Burns, an experienced head coach who last worked on the staff at Louisville, will be ready to jump in.

The spoiler: The Trojans’ only ranked opponent of the non-conference will be Texas and a strong performance will be a warning shot to the rest of the Pac-12 that this team is coming together quickly.

South Carolina transfer Destiny Littleton practices with new USC teammates during a recent preseason practice. Photo Courtesy of USC Athletics.

Utah

The plot: The Utes want to build off the success of last season, when they won 21 games, advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade and made their first appearance in the Pac-12 Tournament title game in program history. Led by a young core that included Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Gianna Kneepkens, Jenna Johnson and Kennady McQueen, they were the highest-scoring team in the Pac-12 last season and led the conference in three-pointers made, attempted, as well as free-throw attempts, made and assists. Now for the encore and a change in expectations that Lynne Roberts has been building toward.

The twist: Losing both of her veteran guards — Brynna Maxwell and Dru Gylten — to the transfer portal was a surprise for a team that had such a strong season. But adding Alissa Pili from USC is a great consolation prize. Pili averaged 16.3 points a game before dealing with injuries over the past two seasons.

The spoiler: Utah’s ability to hang near the top of the Pac-12 will depend on their defense. We know they can score, but the Utes ranked last in the conference in points allowed last season (68.2) and that just won’t do.

Washington

The plot: The Huskies finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 in Tina Langley’s first season in Seattle and the rebuild begins in earnest now. Washington has eight returners back, giving the squad an opportunity to find their groove quickly, led by senior Haley Van Dyke and forward Lauren Schwartz. The biggest place to gain ground is offense, where Washington ranked 12th in the Pac-12, averaging just 56.2 points a game.

The twist: Sophomore post Dalayah Daniels was one of the top players in the country when she left her Seattle home to go to Cal last season, but now she’s back and the Huskies get a player with a ton of experience, as Daniels started 28 games, and played in 37, in Berkeley over the last two seasons.

The spoiler: Washington is banking its home-court advantage, playing in Seattle for 11 of their first 13 games. The lone exception, a trip to Las Vegas for tournament games against Santa Clara and Fordham.


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Washington State

The plot: A second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, and second-place finish in the Pac-12 regular season sets a new standard in Pullman for a Cougars team that has much of its core back for another run to the top half of the Pac-12 standings. Charlisse Leger-Walker is a junior, a leader and the team’s go-to scorer. Johanna Teder and Bella Murekatete, the Most Improved Player in the Pac-12 last season, are great complements. This trio combined for 36.5 points a game last season and have space to do more.

The twist: Predicting Murekatete, the first Rwandan woman to play NCAA Division I basketball, as one of the breakout players in the Pac-12 this season, the kind of player at 6’5 who will counter the likes of Brink, Belibi, Prince, and change many shots and decisions inside the paint.

The spoiler: There are nine international players on the WSU roster from seven different countries and none from the transfer portal, proving there is more than one way to build a team.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Darcy on October 22, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    Nice breakdown on what to expect from each team instead of just predictions

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