November 11, 2020 

The Pac-12 reloads in 2020-21

No shortage of Final Four candidates in this conference

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Las Vegas, Nev. – Arizona Wildcats vs California Golden Bears, quarterfinals of the 2020 Pac-12 Tournament. Aari McDonald (2), Sam Thomas (14) and Jazlen Green (10). Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

A lot of things are different in 2020, but some things stay the same. The greatness of Pac-12 women’s basketball is one of the latter.

A lot of big names and faces have moved on. A league that features four of ESPN’s “way too early” Top 10 teams and three of the best classes in the country always has someone ready to step into the places left open, though.

Going by national accolades, the top returner in the league is Arizona’s Aari McDonald. The senior was honored as the best shooting guard in the country last season and named the league’s best defender. Only an injury and the uncertainty of the pandemic kept her from leaving for the WNBA.

Not to be outdone, the newcomers to the league are among the best, as well. Oregon brings in the top class in the nation featuring five McDonald’s All-Americans.

Stanford kept right on being Stanford with another top-10 class, and their rivals across the Bay weren’t far behind. California made a splash when head coach Charmin Smith brought in a class ranked No. 7 by ESPN HoopGurlz after just a few months on the job.

It won’t be an easy season by any stretch. The league’s coaches voted to go to a full round-robin schedule this year meaning a 22-game conference season for each team. With the NCAA limiting the women to 25 games without a multi-team event and 23 plus up to four in a MTE, that means most teams will be playing as few as three non-conference opponents before jumping into a brutal conference season.

“People that choose to come to the Pac-12 choose to play in the best conference,” Colorado head coach JR Payne said. “And so the fact that we’re adding four more of those games is very difficult, but it’s what we all signed up for.”

As for how the teams will navigate what they signed up for, the league’s coaches and beat writers have yet to weigh in. Here’s one writer’s best guess. Previews are listed in order of projected finish.

Stanford Cardinal

Last season: 27-6 (14-4, 3rd Pac-12), lost to Oregon in finals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: DiJonai Carrington (grad transfer to Baylor), Maya Dodson (opt out)

Key returners: Kiana Williams, Lexie Hull, Lacie Hull, Haley Jones, Ashten Prechtel

Key additions: Cameron Brink (No. 3 freshman), Jana Van Gytenbeek (No. 39 freshman)

Outlook: The Cardinal are projected by most to return to the premier position in the conference after finishing third in the 2019-20 regular season. After adding the No. 2 class and the No. 1 recruit last year, they landed the No. 6 class this season according ESPN HoopGurlz. With the upperclassmen already in the fold, that will be difficult for the rest of the conference to overcome.

What do you say about Stanford that isn’t said every year? They have one of the best coaches ever. They always have smart, talented players. They work together. It’s difficult to bet against them.

Arizona Wildcats

Last season: 24-7 (12-6, 4th Pac-12), lost to Oregon in semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Dominique McBryde (graduation), Amari Carter (graduation)

Key returners: Aari McDonald, Cate Reese, Sam Thomas, Helena Pueyo

Key additions: Shaina Pellington (transfer, Oklahoma), Trinity Baptiste (grad transfer, Virginia Tech), Bendu Yeaney (transfer, Indiana), Lauren Ware (No. 26 freshman)

Outlook: The Wildcats return three of their five starters from last season, a group headlined by Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year McDonald. They also add key back court depth with Yeaney and former Big 12 Freshman of the Year Pellington. McBryde’s place in the front court will likely be handled by Baptiste, but a combination of Ware and Reese could prove formidable, as well.

Whoever loses out on a starting position will lead a deep bench that is balanced in both front court and back court depth. The massive improvement in both depth and talent heading into Adia Barnes’ fifth year at Arizona make the Wildcats a team that can challenge the Cardinal and will be talked about as a Final Four contender this year.

“Our coach, she usually says, ‘Last year, we were hunting everyone else. Now we’re the hunted,’” said sophomore guard Mara Mote. “Everyone wants to beat us, show that we’re not that good. But it’s exciting. We have pressure, but it’s good pressure.”

Oregon Ducks

Last season: 31-2 (17-1, 1st Pac-12), won the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Sabrina Ionescu (graduation), Ruthy Hebard (graduation), Satou Sabally (graduation)

Key returners: Erin Boley, Taylor Chavez

Key additions: Taylor Mikesell (transfer, Maryland), Sedona Prince (transfer, Texas), Nyara Sabally (return from injury), Sydney Parrish (No. 8 freshman), Te-Hina Paopao (No. 11 freshman), Kylee Watson (No. 17 freshman), Maddie Scherr (No. 19 freshman), Angela Dugalic (No. 22 freshman)

Outlook: The Ducks are largely starting over after losing three players to the first round of the WNBA Draft last year. But “starting over” means something different for them now.

Kelly Graves brought in the No. 1 class in the country featuring five players, all of whom are rated as five-star prospects. He also adds Sabally, the younger sister of Satou, who sat out her first two years in Eugene due to injury. She will be joined by former Texas Longhorn Prince, another player who has spent two years sitting out.

The cherry on the top was when the NCAA granted Mikesell immediate eligibility. The junior was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year two seasons ago and will help the Ducks absorb some of the losses in the back court.

Oregon will have the talent to challenge anyone, and that should only increase as the season wears on. The problem early on is that so much of the talent is new to the Ducks.

“It’s been a little roller coaster ride in terms of execution,” Graves said in mid-October. “You know, as it should be or as expected, with nine new players and seven freshmen. Everybody’s just trying to figure each other out. Some days, we look like world beaters. And then the next day, we don’t look so good… I just hope that we continue to work hard and buy in and the more we get comfortable with each other, and the more the roles start to develop, I think it’ll be a lot better for us. So that’s why I think (we) might look rough early, and especially since we’re only going to have two or three non-league games before we jump right into the toughest conference in the country.”

UCLA Bruins

Last Season: 26-5 (14-4, 2nd Pac-12), lost to Stanford in semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Japreece Dean (graduation), Kiara Jefferson (opt out), Kayla Owens (opt out)

Key returners: Michaela Onyenwere, Charisma Osborne

Key additions: Emily Bessoir

Outlook: The ESPN “way too early” projections and the AP preseason poll have the Bruins as a top-10 team and ahead of Oregon in the Pac-12. They may still end that way, but complications have arisen that could knock them back from their second-place finish in last year’s regular season.

When practice started in September, head coach Cori Close had only eight players to work with. That was still the case as November closed in.

Opt outs and difficulties getting Izzy Anstey and Gemma Potter, her two Australian freshmen, into the country proved to be hurdles. That put the Bruins behind the eight ball a bit in their preparation.

Regardless, UCLA will still have two of the most dynamic players in the conference in Onyenwere and Osborne. And their coach is looking at the bigger picture.

“My goal as a coach is to provide to live out our mission, which is to provide an uncommon transformational experience for these young women,” Close said back in September. “And we want to be an elite basketball program, and it may take a different form, but the standards aren’t going to change. We want to pursue a championship on the court. But we also believe that champions are made from the inside out, and we want to have championship habits and we want to have championship relationships.”

Oregon State Beavers

Last season: 23-9 (10-8, 6th in Pac-12), lost to Stanford in quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Mikayla Pivec (graduation), Kat Tudor (graduation), Destiny Slocum (grad transfer to Arkansas)

Key returners: Taylor Jones, Kennedy Brown, Taya Corosdale, Aleah Goodman

Key additions: Sasha Goforth (No. 21 freshman), Ellie Mack (grad transfer, Bucknell)

Outlook: It was a big deal to lose Pivec, but everyone knew that was coming. It was a surprise to see Slocum announce her intentions to transfer after the season, though.

The Beavs still have a solid young core, especially in the front court. Their strength at the guard position took a hit, but top 25 guard Goforth should help ease that transition. They will also get a boost from Mack, last year’s Patriot League Player of the Year.

Can they maintain their position in the conference? They should still be a top-half team, but there’s little wiggle room with some of the moves others have made.

USC Women of Troy

Last season: 17-14 (8-10, 7th in Pac-12), lost to UCLA in quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Kayla Overbeck

Key returners: Alissa Pili, Endyia Rodgers

Key additions: Jordyn Jenkins (No. 41 freshman)

Outlook: Some other observers may not be as high on USC, but it’s difficult to ignore the impact sophomores that coach Mark Trakh has. He also has impact players returning from injury and a top 50 recruit.

Another positive for USC is that they just picked up the commitment of Virginia transfer Shemera Williams. The sophomore put her name in the portal back in August and announced her pledge to USC via social media on Halloween. With the NCAA handing out transfer waivers left and right, she may well see the court at some point this season.

Even with a very young team that was missing key contributors, last year the Women of Troy steadily improved. By the end of the season, they were a tough out.

They also had one of the most dominant players in the league in Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Pili. The youth and the quality of that youth put USC in a prime position to take a step forward this season, especially with some of the losses suffered by their competitors.

The biggest worries for the Women of Troy are lost training time and health. Only three players were able to return for voluntary workouts this summer. As they prepared for the season, the entire team was shut down on Nov. 9 for two weeks due to a positive coronavirus test.

California Golden Bears

Last season: 12-19 (3-15, 12th in Pac-12), lost to Arizona in quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Jaelyn Brown (graduation), CJ West (graduation)

Key returners: Jazlen Green, Leilani McIntosh

Key additions: Dalayah Daniels (No. 13 freshman), Ugonne “Michelle” Onyiah (No. 35 freshman), Fatou Samb (No. 51 freshman), Sela Heide (No. 89 freshman)

Outlook: Cal is another team that is looking to move up in the world. The incoming freshman class has them ready to do that. As with Oregon, though, talented freshmen are still freshmen.

It’s not just about the newcomers, though. The Golden Bears were inconsistent, but had some big wins and some near-misses last season. Their non-conference included close road losses to Harvard and No. 5 Connecticut. At home, they had a win over No. 20 Arkansas and another close loss to No. 14 Kentucky.

In conference, it was more of the same. A four-point OT loss at home to No. 10 UCLA was a heartbreaker, but at the end of the season, they beat No. 13 Arizona in Tucson and Arizona State to open the Pac-12 Tournament.

That’s something the returners can build on.

There’s no doubt that the Bears will make noise in the next few years and will even beat some teams above them on this list this season. The question is how consistent their young players will be.

Keep an eye on Smith’s team, and be really wary when 2021-22 rolls around.

Arizona State Sun Devils

Last season: 20-11 (10-8, 5th in Pac-12), lost to Cal in opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Reili Richardson (graduation), Kiara Russell (graduation), Robbi Ryan (graduation), Jamie Ruden (graduation), Ja’Tavia Tapley (graduation)

Key returners: Eboni Walker, Iris Mbulito, Jayde Van Hyfte

Key additions: Keeli Burton-Oliver, Gabriela Bosquez (juco transfer)

Outlook: ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne always has her team prepared. They are tough competitors every year. Last season, they were the lone squad to hand Oregon an in-conference loss and managed to knock both Oregon schools off in back-to-back games.

The problem for the Devils is that they lost the bulk of their starting lineup. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that they’re currently being out-recruited.

It’s tough to stay in the top half of the Pac-12 if you aren’t bringing in those top 100 recruits on a regular basis. To add to that, they’re being out-recruited by programs that were below them in the pecking order not long ago.

The Sun Devils certainly have the history to finish above USC and Cal just based on fight and effort. These three teams are close, though, and pure talent puts ASU at the bottom of that totem pole for now.

The Sun Devils will have to keep their eyes on the Utes, as well.

Utah Utes

Last season: 14-17 (6-12, 8th in Pac-12), lost to Oregon in quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Kiana Moore (graduation), Daneesha Provo (graduation)

Key returners: Dru Gylten, Brynna Maxwell, Lola Pendande

Key additions: Kennady McQueen (No. 58 freshman), Peyton McFarland (No. 74 freshman), Kelsey Rees (Australia)

Outlook: The Utes relied on their young core last season, which should only be improved by another season. They also picked up a couple of key top 100 recruits, a solid international, and transfer Zuzanna Puc, who spent last season in the program after transferring from UTEP.

Utah has a very real chance to jump ASU, but it’s unlikely that they will find their way much higher in a year like 2020-21.

Colorado Buffaloes

Last season: 16-14 (5-13, 10th in Pac-12), lost to USC in opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Quinessa Caylao-Do (graduation), Emma Clarke (professional)

Key returners: Mya Hollingshed, Jaylyn Sherrod

Key additions: Madison Buford (juco All-America honorable mention)

Outlook: While the leadership of Caylao-Do will be greatly missed, Payne said that she was very impressed by the steps that Hollingshed has taken in that regard this year. It would be just one more component to the game of Hollingshed, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding last season.

Colorado had two promising underclassmen in Sherrod and Clarke last year, but Clarke has opted to return to Australia for a professional career after originally transferring to Texas Tech. While the staff brought in a four-player freshman class, they joined Arizona State and Washington State as the only schools not to bring in at least one top 100 recruit.

In the Buffs’ favor, that may not matter. After all, Sherrod was a three-star recruit who played just eight games her senior year in high school, yet earned her way onto the Pac-12 All-Freshman team last season.

Washington Huskies

Last season: 13-17 (5-13, 9th in Pac-12), lost to Utah in opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Amber Melgoza (graduation)

Key returners: Haley Van Dyke

Key additions: Alexis Whitfield (No. 61 freshman), Jayda Noble (No. 99 freshman), Nia Lowery (sat out due to injury last year)

Outlook: Melgoza had been the heart of UW’s team for a while. Last season, she was the only Husky to average double digits in scoring.

Now, she’s gone.

Van Dyke led the team in rebounding and was second in scoring and minutes per game last season despite starting only once. By default, that makes her the most important returner.

The Huskies got a few nice players on the recruiting trail, but they have a long way to go. With Melgoza gone, they also have a lot of production to make up for. It doesn’t seem likely that they will in 2020-21.

Washington State Cougars

Last season: 11-20 (4-14, 11th in Pac-12), lost to Oregon State in opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament

Key losses: Borislava “Bobi” Hristova (graduation), Chanelle Molina (graduation)

Key returners: Bella Murekatete

Key additions: Krystal Leger-Walker (transfer, Northern Colorado), Charlisse Leger-Walker (New Zealand), Jessica Clarke (Canada)

Outlook: The Cougs struggled last year despite having two of the best players in program history. It will be difficult with both Hristova and the elder Molina now part of the alumnae.

The elder Leger-Walker will try to recreate some of the success she had with head coach Kamie Ethridge when both were at Northern Colorado. The point guard will step into the spot vacated by Molina.

In a conference like the Pac-12, there’s just no way to get around the recruiting issue. WSU hasn’t been able to recruit like some of the others in the league. It’s likely to make 2020-21 a long season in Pullman, even if they’re playing fewer games.

Ethridge scheduled a brutal non-conference season for WSU last year. While that won’t be a problem this season, there also won’t be much time to prepare for the equally-brutal conference slate.

Written by Kim Doss

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