November 15, 2022
The three teams changing the Pac-12 pecking order
Keep an eye on Washington State, Colorado and Utah
Outside of Pullman, Washington, heck, outside of Beasley Coliseum, who would have thought they would look at the Pac-12 standings at the end of the 2021-22 regular season and see the Washington State Cougars sitting near the top in a tie for second place?
A program that has been in a near-constant state of rebuilding and unrealized potential—the Cougars hadn’t posted better than a .500 record in conference play since 1990-91—was finally built, finally showing potential.
A roster stacked with international talent under head coach Kamie Ethridge was going to make its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance after an 11-6 conference season that put them in front of the likes of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon State. The spell of struggle, it appears, has been broken. But the funny thing is, the Cougars weren’t the only Cinderella in the Pac-12 last season. When Stanford took the court for the Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas last March—an outcome that everyone could have seen coming—the team warming up on the other side of the court were the Utah Utes.
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A team that finished 8-7 in conference play behind a core of freshman starters ran to its first-ever conference tournament title game and punched an NCAA ticket for the first time in a decade and the first time in Lynne Roberts’s tenure. The Utes defeated Arkansas in the first round before falling in the second against Texas in Austin. And then there was Colorado, J.R. Payne’s team, who finished with 22 wins (the most under Payne and since 2012-13), spent three weeks in the AP Top 25, defeated UCLA, Oregon and Arizona during the regular season and reached the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals and the NCAA Tournament.
For the past few seasons, the narrative about the Pac-12 has understandably focused on what’s happened at the top—the Stanford vs. Arizona national title game of 2021, six different teams advancing to the Final Four in the last ten years—the conference’s impressive run of NCAA wins outpacing any other league in the country.
But what was also happening on the West Coast was coming from the bottom up from a group of teams that might seem unfamiliar to this stage but who have been building for this over the past several years.
While UCLA, Oregon State and even Oregon look to reclaim their spots near the top of the league standings this year behind stocked recruiting classes, they are going to have to go through the Cougars, Utes and Buffaloes to get there. The Pac-12 will be deeper and more competitive as a result.
WSU guard Charlisse Leger-Walker, entering her junior season, has shown herself to be one of the country’s most consistent scores and along with post Bella Murekatete, the kind of tandem that can elevate a program to a new level for the long term.
“I think we’ve really been trying to establish more of a winning culture. Over the past two years, we’ve really started doing that, trying to bring that culture into the gym,” Leger-Walker said. “We bring back a lot of our core players and all of us collectively buy into that mindset. It’s just how we can go about bringing our new players into that mindset, as well.
And really giving them the confidence to be a part of a successful culture. “Going into this season, we have set high standards for ourselves and we have goals that we want to achieve and getting back to the tournament and making a run in the tournament is definitely one of those goals.”
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Roberts talked about her team’s loss in Austin to the Longhorns last spring, surprised that after the game, her players were stoic and “ticked off.” They expected to win that game and that gives Roberts hope for the future of this program.
“They were so upset and as I left the locker room, I thought to myself, “Oh, this is good,” Roberts said. “This is really good because we were so young and we still are pretty young. We don’t have any seniors on this year’s team, but they’re so motivated.”
“That’s kind of how our off-season started, with just this kind of a little bit of piss and vinegar about not being just happy to be there. We want to do more. They’ve been working hard and I know as well as you all that a lot has to go right and you’ve got to get a little lucky to get back there, but we’re looking forward to hopefully taking that next step.”
The Utes lost a pair of key players—Dru Gylten and Brynna Maxwell to transfer but gained Alissa Pili, who came from USC after being named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year two years ago. Roberts said her team is leaning into expectations. Gianna Kneepkens agreed.
“It’s a great spot for us…having, like Coach said, those expectations and not just talking
about March right now, but focusing each day and getting better so we can get back,” Kneepkens said.
Payne said she is proud of the work her team has done to elevate the Buffaloes’ program. “We definitely have a different mindset in that last year—everybody wants to go to the Final Four, right? Everyone wants to win a National Championship. But our goal (last season) was to get to the NCAA Tournament. It hadn’t been done in almost a decade in Boulder, so that was our goal.”
“When we got there and didn’t go as deep as we wanted to in the NCAA Tournament, the goal quickly changed to we want to go deeper into the NCAA Tournament. I think these guys have led the charge in that we’re working every day to be better than we were a year ago to make sure that that is not just a dream but is a reality for us in March.”
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.