October 31, 2021 

2021-22 Pac-12 preview

After sending two teams to the women's basketball national championship last season, the Pac-12 is hungry for more this year.

The Pac-12 made a statement in the women’s basketball world last season, with two of its teams, Stanford and Arizona, making it to the national championship game.

This year, the conference is hungrier than ever to make sure people don’t forget its name when talking about great women’s basketball programs.

Off the heels of a national championship (Stanford), the best season in program history (Arizona) and the debut of promising young stars (Oregon State and Washington State, just to name a few), you’ll want to keep the Conference of Champions on your radar this season.

The best in the west

Not only did Stanford win it all last year, but head coach Tara VanDerveer also became the winningest coach in the game. Now, the Cardinal looks to add on to that success.

Stanford’s championship run came with its fair share of challenges — notably nearly 10 weeks on the road because of the pandemic. They took it all in stride and were able to pull away with their first title in 29 years.

But VanDerveer says the past is the past. She doesn’t have time to dwell on past wins. She and her squad are still hunting for more.

“Coming off a championship run, we know what it takes, and where we want to go,” said Stanford junior guard Haley Jones, a preseason All-American candidate. “We have a very big target on our back and we welcome that.”

Stanford will open the new season on a 20-game win streak, favored by 11 of the league’s 12 coaches to win the Pac-12 championship. With 12 of 13 players from last year’s title-winning team returning, they may just be the favorites to win it all again this year.

They’re not letting off the gas, as senior wing Lexie Hull can attest to.

“Practice has been super competitive, and if you aren’t out there diving for balls, you might not play, my knees show that,” Hull said at Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Media Day.

VanDerveer says her team is confident, yet realistic and understands that nothing is a given. Four freshmen (making up the nation’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class) and the program’s first graduate transfer will join VanDerveer’s 12 returners in their quest to repeat in 2021-22.

Right on Stanford’s tail

Arizona’s historic season came to a head against Stanford on basketball’s biggest stage last year. No one predicted the Wildcats would make it far in the tournament, let alone to the championship game.

Things will look different in the desert this year, as Arizona lost centerpiece guard Aari McDonald and forward Trinity Baptiste. The Wildcats added four incoming freshman and transfers Taylor Chavez from Oregon and Koi Love from Vanderbilt.

But experiencing the highest level in college hoops has made them even hungrier for that trophy. Despite roster changes and outside expectations, head coach Adia Barnes says her team’s standards are high and after having a taste of success, they want more.

“This is uncharted territory for the Wildcats,” Barnes said after the national championship last season. “The bar is high, we want to come back here. I”m trying to build a program like Tara [VanDerveer], or Geno [Auriemma], or Dawn [Staley] … I think in the future Arizona will be back.”

Other programs to watch out for this year include Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State, which round out the preseason coaches poll top five (with Stanford at No. 1 and Arizona at No. 5). Coming in the sixth spot is Washington State, who went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years last season.

All six of those top teams earned NCAA Tournament bids last season – the fourth consecutive time at least half of the Pac-12’s programs earned bids on Selection Monday and the seventh straight with five-or-more berths.

Arizona isn’t the only team with a lot of new faces. UCLA is welcoming four transfers and a combined four players returning from injuries or COVID-19-related absences. Graduate transfer Gina Conti (Wake Forest) will play point guard alongside junior guard Charisma Osborne, whose 17 points per game ranked fourth in the conference last season.

Head coach Cori Close has faith in her new backcourt leadership.

“I really honestly think I have one of the best backcourts in the country,” Close said at media day. “Their ability to play off of each other, to stretch defenses from the 3-point line, get to the cup, but maybe more importantly, set other people up … I feel very, very lucky for these two to be leading our team.”

Stanford will have a target on their back this year, and there are plenty of strong contenders nipping at their heels.

A star reborn

In Corvallis, a young star is getting ready to start her freshman year for the second time. Oregon State guard Talia Von Oelhoffen opted to graduate high school early and kick off her collegiate career last January.

Von Oelhoffen fit right in, averaging 24.3 minutes and 11.3 points per game in the 13 games she played in the orange and black. It all counted big-time on the court, but didn’t count against her eligibility.

So she enters her true freshman season with Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament experience already under her belt, which will mesh well with the other talent OSU is bringing in this season in graduate transfers Téa Adams (San Diego State) and Emily Codding (St. Mary’s) and freshmen guards Greta Kampschroeder and AJ Marotte.

“Playing at this level, you don’t know until you experience it,” Von Oelhoffen said at media day. “Playing behind Aleah Goodman, watching that up close made me a better player.”

Beavers head coach Scott Rueck was nothing short of impressed by Von Oelhoffen’s quick contributions last year – just take a listen:

Don’t forget about the Leger-Walker sisters over in Pullman, either. These New Zealand natives led Washington State to a national ranking and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years.

Now, the Cougar sisters return to finish what they started. Charlisse Leger-Walker was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, finishing third in the conference in scoring (18.8 points per game) in her first season. Krystal Leger-Walker, who was a senior last season, decided to come back for one more dance.

Head coach Kamie Ethridge is excited to have the sisters back, but knows the Cougs have a lot of work to do to get their flowers after being picked to finish sixth in the conference.

“Our expectations are bigger and better and we’re not afraid of that,” Ethridge said. “This is the best league in the country and no one is getting worse. We don’t have any games where we are beating someone by 20 or 30 points. We are going to get by minute by minute. And we have to do all the things we need to do.”

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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