March 16, 2023
Seven big questions for the Pac-12 in the NCAA Tournament
Pac-12 leads all conferences since 2015-16 in Final Four appearances
The Pac-12’s success in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade is well-documented, if not well-known. The conference leads all conferences since 2015-16 in Final Four appearances (seven), non-conference winning percentage (.801), NCAA Tournament wins (76) and NCAA Tournament winning percentage (.685).
Since 2012-13, six different programs — Arizona, Cal, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington — have reached the Final Four, two more teams that any other conference. In other words, half of the conference has been to the Final Four in the last 10 years. And this year, seven teams are in the brackets — tying the Pac-12’s all-time high. All of them with at least a No. 8 seed.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have questions. Let’s get to them.
No. 1 seed Stanford
Are everyone’s “concerns” justified? A few weeks ago, Stanford, a No. 1 seed for the 13th time, was a consensus Final Four pick, a name you wrote into the brackets in pen. Now the Cardinal, having lost two of their last three games, including a semifinal exit in the Pac-12 Tournament, have everyone worried. The offense that sputtered against Colorado in the first half, a seeming inability to find enough consistent shooting to bury a team from beyond the 3-point line while Cameron Brink has her way inside, losses to teams like USC and Washington…it’s all put Stanford in a position where they feel like they need to “prove themselves”, despite a No. 1 seed. The Pac-12 was a tough, tough place this season. Stanford and Cal, because of the way the unbalanced schedule broke, were the only teams in the league who played the Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 teams in the league standings twice during the regular-season. The Cardinal spent four of the last five weekends on the road and still nearly won at Utah, despite getting into Salt Lake City at 3:30 a.m. on game day. The questions about the Cardinal’s offensive balance are valid. But Stanford can make up for what it lacks offensively on most days with one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. And they are experienced. Does this team seem more vulnerable than past teams? Sure. Are they capable of winning it all? Absolutely.
No. 2 seed Utah
Is the defense up to the job? There is hardly a team in the field who can match the breadth of what the Utes have done offensively this season. The 83.5 points a game, 48.5 percent shooting from the floor, 249 3-pointers, 78.2 percent shooting from the free-throw line, 18.3 assists per game. All-American honors for junior post Alissa Pili, who proved all season to be the linchpin of a plan to bring Utah, hosting NCAA Tournament games for the first time since 2001, into the ranks of the national elite. Every team Utah plays knows it will likely need to figure out a way to keep up. Here’s where the Utes come in. Utah, with the highest seed in program history, ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (65.9 points a game), opponents shooting 41 percent from the floor. The highest seed in school history is unfamiliar territory for this team. Hosting games at home is new for this team. And as they get deeper into the bracket, the Utes are going to need to defend well enough to win a big game the likes of which they’ve never been in before.
No. 4 seed UCLA
Is the offense up to the job? The Bruins, hosting games at Pauley Pavilion for the first time since 2018, are one of the best rebounding teams in the country, averaging nearly 41 rebounds a game (15 offensive boards), creating opportunities for scoring. But the Bruins are shooting 39.4 percent from the floor for the season, which ranked them 10th in the Pac-12. Charisma Osborne has been getting more support from Kiki Rice, who finished with a season-high 22 points against Stanford in the Pac-12 semis; and redshirt sophomore Emily Bessoir has scored in double figures in four straight games, hitting what head coach Cori Close has to hope is a late-season scoring peak. With only Osborne and Rice averaging in double figures for the season, players like senior Gina Conti and freshman Londynn Jones will need to do more if the Bruins want to make a long run, because the deeper you get into the tournament, the more that scoring matters.
No. 5 seed Washington State
Is it the Cougars’ turn to win a game? Washington State is making its third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and are one of the tournament’s best stories after their surprising run to the Pac-12 tourney title game. Now is it finally time for Washington State to nab their first tournament win? Despite a strong seed, earned with their title run, they will face an experienced NCAA program in No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast. The Cougars are a strong road team, with nine road wins and five wins on a neutral court and that kind of experience should definitely help. And with players like Charlisse Leger-Walker and Bella Murekatete already with a pair of NCAA games under their belt, the Cougars should be ready for the national spotlight. But they also better be ready to play some defense on the perimeter, because FGCU is one of the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooting teams and will be looking to pull off the upset from the perimeter.
No. 6 seed Colorado
Is Quay Miller ready to carry her share of the load again? The reality is that if Miller continues to struggle offensively, the Buffaloes’ stay in the NCAA Tournament, their second straight appearance, could be short. And that would be a shame because Colorado has the potential to shake up a bracket. They just need to pull off their first tournament win since 2003. Miller, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, finished two Pac-12 Tournament games with two points after going 0-for-16 from the floor. But there are players who can fill in the gap, including Frida Formann, Kindyll Wetta and senior guard Jaylyn Sherrod, one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Eight players on the roster have been on an NCAA Tournament team now. That experience, and the experience of being ousted in the first round a season ago should serve Colorado well.
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No. 7 seed Arizona
Can the ‘Cats put their disappointment aside and thrive? Arizona exited the Pac-12 Tournament after one quarterfinal game and comes into the tournament with three straight losses. Those losses cost Adia Barnes’ team a chance to host games at McKale and now they will face a strong West Virginia team, the former team of second-leading scorer Esmery Martinez, for the right to potentially face second-seeded Maryland on their home floor. Barnes’ called the tournament a “chance to redeem ourselves.” A long run looks like a big ask, but if Arizona can play into the second weekend it will be because of their ability to break a team’s spirit on the defensive end. The Wildcats force 18.5 turnovers a game and they are loaded with experience with seniors Cate Reese, Helena Pueyo and Shaina Pellington hoping to write themselves a happy ending.
No. 8 seed USC
Can this tournament be the start of USC’s return to elite status? The Trojans make their first NCAA appearance since 2014, but they are doing it in a different spot than they probably were hoping. USC lost its first-round Pac-12 Tournament game to 11-seed Oregon State and has had to wait a long time to get back on the proverbial horse. But while it’s been a while for the program. Three of the transfers on USC’s roster have NCAA experience — Koi Love (Arizona), leading scorer Kadi Sissoko (Minnesota) and floor general Destiny Littleton, who won a national championship last season with South Carolina. Defense needs to carry the day for USC, a team that holds opponents to 35.4 shooting from the floor and ranks in the top 20 in scoring defense. If USC can get past South Dakota State in the first round, its prospects against No. 1 seed Virginia Tech will be intriguing, given the Hokies’ inexperience at being a No. 1 seed.
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.