December 1, 2022
Auditioning for No. 2 in the Pac-12
Oregon, UCLA and Arizona among the contenders
If we assume – and it’s hard not to at this point, given the Cardinal’s experience, talent and depth – that Stanford is the No. 1 team in the Pac-12, what comes next? Or more precisely,
who comes next?
There are a handful of teams auditioning for the role of No. 2 in the Pac-12 at this point.
Let’s help them make their cases based on what we know so far.
The case for No. 2: The Wildcats have won their first six games for the fourth consecutive season and their biggest preseason tests are still to come starting next week when Arizona takes on Kansas and then the biggest test of the preseason, a December 18 matchup against Baylor. Arizona is averaging 90 points a game, which ranks them fifth nationally. And it’s been a balanced effort with seven players averaging at least 8.0 points a game.
Senior guard Helena Pueyo is leading the conference with a shooting percentage of 72.0 and is coming off a career-high 22 points against San Diego. Senior forward Esmery Martinez, the West Virginia transfer, is averaging 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds. Defensively, the ‘Cats are putting plenty of pressure on opposing teams, averaging 13 steals a game.
What we don’t know yet: Not only have they not played a Power Five opponent yet, Adia Barnes’ team hasn’t traveled far from home yet – playing four games in Tucson and two in San Diego – but Arizona will play six of nine on the road between December 18 and January 15 and we find out a lot more about them outside of their comfort zone.
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The case for No. 2: The Ducks’ only loss came last weekend against No. 6 North Carolina at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, a game they led by eight in the fourth quarter. Winning the next game against Michigan State showed their resilience.
Guards Te-Hina Paopao and Endyia Rogers are leading the way for an offense that distributes 18.8 assists per game and Phillipina Kyei, the 6-foot-8 sophomore from Canada, is filling up the stat sheet nicely in the post, averaging 10.2 points and 9.8 rebounds a game. Oregon has size, inside-outside balance, experience in the backcourt and young talent like freshman forward Grace Van Slooten, the ingredients on paper to assume a spot at the top of the standings.
What we don’t know yet: A pre-Christmas San Diego tournament weekend in which the Ducks will face Arkansas and then possibly No. 4 Ohio State, looms as the next barometer games before the Pac-12 schedule starts in earnest.
The case for No. 2: The Bruins are quickly becoming a bigger part of the national conversation, coming off a tournament win in the Bahamas in which they defeated South Dakota State and Tennessee. They then took a 10-point halftime lead against No. 1 South Carolina in Columbia before falling 73-64.
Senior guard Charisma Osborne is the league’s leading scorer at 20.6 points a game and freshman sensation Kiki Rice is making an immediate impact, averaging 11.9 points a game, including an impressive 16-point, nine-rebound performance against the defending national champions. UCLA has momentum and is battle-tested, having already faced three ranked opponents.
What we don’t know yet: Whether the Bruins’ lack of scoring depth – only Osborne and Rice are averaging double figures – will prove to be an issue against some of the conference’s high-powered offenses.
The case for No. 2: The Utes, off to the program’s best start since 2018-19, made big news with a 124-point performance against Oklahoma two weeks ago. The offense is the theme of the story here. Utah is the No. 2 scoring offense in the country (95.0 ppg), led by Alissa Pili’s 18.5 points a game, followed by Gianna Kneepkens at 14.8. As a team, the Utes are shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and averaging 21.7 assists per game to lead the conference. Utah beat back-to-back SEC teams in Alabama and Mississippi to win the Pink Flamingo Tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving.
What we don’t know yet: Utah scores a lot, but also gives up its share of points, having held only one opponent under 60 points thus far. How is that going to work when the degree of defensive difficulty increases dramatically in conference play? Oh, and the Utes haven’t played a road game yet.
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The case for No. 2: The Cougars were last year’s surprise second-place finishers, and their only loss this season came against BYU in Hawaii. Junior Clarisse Leger-Walker is doing what she does best, putting the ball in the basket, ranking second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 20.5 points a game. Senior Bella Murekatete is averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds. Washington State has experience battling the Pac-12’s best teams. Does that build momentum, or is it a source of magic that needs to be conjured up again?
What we don’t know yet: Will a schedule that includes no ranked opponents catch up to the Cougars once the Pac-12 gauntlet begins?
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.