October 13, 2023
Pac-12’s last ride is the elephant in the room at media day
'Our team's theme is ‘Best year ever,’ and I think that that's kind of what everyone wants'
LAS VEGAS – The proverbial elephant in the room was a mighty big one.
As 12 coaches and the players representing their programs came into the press room at the Park MGM Grand for what is the final Pac-12 women’s basketball media day, they all talked as teams talk at the beginning of the season – about growth and expectations and excitement for a season that’s just now a handful of weeks away.
Preseason polls came out, teams discussed their need to prove themselves, to test themselves and to measure themselves against their own standards.
The usual stuff. In a most unusual set of circumstances.
Talk about the impending dissolution of the 108-year-old conference was kept to a minimum, there was not a lot of public sentimentality about the end of a league that has been among the nation’s best in the past decade.
Stanford coach Tara VanDereer, the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12, unsurprisingly addressed it head-on, calling it “heartbreaking.”
“This has been my whole life. I woke up when I heard about it, and I said ‘I’m in a bad dream. This is a nightmare,’” VanDerveer said. “But we are committed to this year being a great year. Our team’s theme is ‘Best year ever,’ and I think that that’s kind of what everyone wants.”
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USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose team would have been playing in the Pac-12 for the last season this year regardless after USC and UCLA announced last season their move to the Big 12 in 2024, demurred when asked about whether the fact that this is the last Pac-12 season was in her thoughts yesterday.
“Nope. My thoughts today are the tremendously talented young women who are here, the coaches that do such an incredible job and the strength of this league,” Gottlieb said. “That is what it’s about today and what the focus should be for the entirety of the season. There’s so much good basketball in front of us and that’s what we are thinking about.”
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes played in the Pac-12 for the Wildcats. Even she said, “It’s not even a thought.
“My focus, this year, is on these great young women…you don’t even look ahead because the main thing is to win now and live in the present.”
Utah coach Lynne Roberts, whose team will be headed to the Big 12 next season with Colorado, Arizona State and Arizona, acknowledged off the podium that “it sucks.”
“This (realignment) decision isn’t about women’s basketball and I’ve learned over the years not to focus on things you can’t control,” Roberts said, whose team was picked to win the Pac-12 by the coaches and the media. “That’s been my mindset. But I do have sadness about this group of coaches and the friendships and the rivalries that we’ve built. I’m a West Coast kid. The Pac-12 was college athletics to me. But my job is to get our team to go out with a bang.”
Conference leaders and employees are preparing for the final months of the Pac-12’s existence, which will coincide with much of the basketball season, filling operational gaps as employees leave for new jobs, working to ensure that the final season for this traditionally close-knit community is one of celebration.
But Oregon State and Washington State find themselves in a different situation than everyone else at this point, the two programs staring at an uncertain future as their schools and the conference engage in legal proceedings about how to move forward, and they don’t know which conference will be their home as of July 1.
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It is a situation that neither Scott Rueck or Kamie Ethridge can control, but as they try to recruit new players and maintain their status as Power 5 programs with a national profile, there are many questions they cannot answer at this point.
“I tell people that I say knowing because I know nothing,” Ethridge said. “You know, no one is asking me. We have to deal with it every single day in recruiting. We have to answer questions about it. So it’s hard. It’s really hard, but it’s nothing I can control.”
Ethridge said she hopes that the two schools will know more about their futures by January.
“I just have to believe in our leadership and hope that we can land someplace that allows us to continue to compete. We are just going to focus on the basketball.”
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.