January 2, 2024
Five things we learned from Pac-12 opening weekend
Los Angeles is embracing women's college hoops, Oregon State is surging and more
It was a strong start to the Pac-12 season this weekend with more rivalry matchups (the Arizona and Washington schools played before the holiday break), star players showing out in front of big crowds. The meat of the schedule starts Friday, with all 12 teams in action.
Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:
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Los Angeles can embrace women’s college basketball
Despite some of the best players in the country coming out of Southern California, women’s college basketball has not had the easiest time taking hold in the City of Angels over the past two decades.
While UCLA has been a program living in the upper echelon of the Pac-12 for the last decade, USC has been up and down, but always with enough talent to keep them intriguing. If anyone bothered to pay attention. Now both teams are ranked, entertaining and compelling to watch.
But with Saturday night’s sellout at Pauley Pavilion in a great game won by No. 2 UCLA over No. 6 USC, 71-64, the national coverage afforded to both the Bruins and the spectacular play of USC’s young star Juju Watkins changes the game.
Just as both teams depart for the Big Ten next season, suddenly Los Angeles is the place to be for women’s college basketball. The Bruins have a young core with Kiki Rice, Londynn Jones and Lauren Betts. Watkins is going to bring in more top recruits. The wider distribution of the Big Ten Network next season will only increase exposure. Suddenly the East Coast bias of the game looks so outdated.
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Stanford needs shooters
Or at least more people to take perimeter shots. The Cardinal opened the Pac-12 schedule on Friday at Cal and came away with a dominating 78-51 victory. But some things are becoming more and more clear.
Teams will choose how to defend Stanford and many of them will do what the Bears did – pack the paint to slow down Cameron Brink and/or Kiki Iriafen inside – and trail Hannah Jump all over the court to prevent her from loosening the defensive reins inside by hitting 3-pointers. That means that players like Talana Lepolo, Brooke Demetre and Elena Bosgana are going to have to make opponents’ pay from the perimeter. Lepolo did just that on Friday with a career-high six 3-pointers and 20 points. It’s exactly what the Cardinal need.
Jump, who became the program’s all-time leading 3-point shooter last week, has taken nearly 30 percent of Stanford’s 3-pointers so far this season and made 32 percent of them.
When Stanford is shooting well from beyond the arc — with multiple options — the Cardinal are one of the best three or four teams in the country. When they aren’t, they could be ripe for upsets in a competitive Pac-12.
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Utah misses Gianna Kneepkens
Gianna Kneepkens’ season-ending knee injury is one that the Utes’ are still adjusting to. Against high-quality opponents South Carolina and Colorado on Saturday, Utah wasn’t its high-scoring self, the only two games this season where it has failed to break 70. Taking away Kneepkens’ 17.8 points a game certainly has had an impact.
Jenna Johnson and Kennady McQueen, the two players who have the biggest gap-filling to do, have not yet been able to increase their scoring output. Johnson scored four points on 2-for7 shooting against Colorado and has scored in double-digits just once since Kneepkens left the lineup. McQueen scored nine points against the Buffaloes, hitting 1 of 5 3-point attempts.
Alissa Pili, meanwhile, is picking up more of the load than ever, with three of her last five games with at least 25 points. But will that be sustainable in conference play?
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Jaylyn Sherrod is a darkhorse Pac-12 POTY candidate
The big names — Pili and Brink — are living up to expectations. The young gun — Watkins — is making her case. But Sherrod is playing the best basketball of her career, and in the discussion for Pac-12 Player of the Year, her name must be said.
She is likely the best perimeter defender in the league, she is leading a very strong Colorado team at the point with nearly six assists per game and on Saturday she proved what an offensive weapon she can be, putting up a career-high 34 points, to go with six steals and four assists against Utah in Boulder.
“I can’t speak for everybody but I just went in with the same mentality that I had the whole game which was to be aggressive,” Sherrod said after the game.
Aggressive is Sherrod’s default setting. Her decision to come back for a fifth season with J.R. Payne gave the Buffaloes’ an experienced leader to build around and the results are clear, with eighth-ranked Colorado at 11-1 heading into next weekend’s games at Arizona and Arizona State. Opponents won’t sleep on Sherrod. Award voters shouldn’t either.
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Oregon State lurks
The league’s most under-the-radar team so far has been the 12-0 Beavers, who played nine straight games at home to start the season, and kept the degree of difficulty pretty low without facing a ranked opponent, but have enough talent to make them a scary proposition for the conference’s top teams.
Sunday’s 62-41 win over Oregon at home, a game in which they had scored just 15 points and were down at the half, turned into a second-half rout when the Beavers outscored the Ducks 47-18 over the final two periods. Raegan Beers finished with 24 points and 17 rebounds, putting her in line with the biggest Pac-12 performances of the weekend. Oregon State outscored Oregon 32-12 in the paint for the game and committed just five turnovers.
And while Oregon State is one of just seven undefeated teams left in the country entering 2024, now things are about to start to get very real for Scott Rueck’s squad. The Beavers will face their first ranked opponents of the season on the road when they head to L.A. to face USC on Friday and UCLA on Sunday.
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.