December 16, 2022 

Asking the Pac-12’s big questions

Which team will surprise, how dominant will Stanford be, and more

The non-conference season has been a pretty good one for the Pac-12, with a nation’s best collective winning percentage of .849 (90-16), ahead of the Big East (.811, 73-17), ACC (.809, 123-29), SEC (.803, 114-28), Big 12 (.774, 72-21) and Big Ten (.730, 92-34). Five teams are ranked in the AP Top 25, a greater proportion of teams ranked than any league in the country.

And of the 98 100-point performances in the country during non-conference play, only two teams have scored that many against Power 6 opponents. Both are in the Pac-12.

The only damper on this party is the Pac-12’s 3-7 mark against ranked opponents, though there are a few chances left to improve that in the last week of non-conference play with Arizona facing Baylor and Oregon State taking on LSU.

The Pac-12 schedule will begin in earnest after Christmas, and there are still questions to be answered. Let’s ask ’em!


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Will Stanford be challenged?

The Cardinal are the No. 2 team in the country and a couple of late-game mistakes away from being No. 1 following their overtime loss to defending national champion South Carolina. That is their only loss of the season to date, and head coach Tara VanDerveer has been able to showcase her team’s experience, versatility, depth and (knock on wood) good health to this point.

Nobody’s individual numbers are eye-popping because there’s been so much offensive balance. Forward Cameron Brink has been dominant at moments; guard Haley Jones’ scoring is down, but she is the center of what they do; guard Hannah Jump is one of the country’s best 3-point shooters; forward Kiki Iriafen is providing athleticism and tenacity inside; and freshman point guard Talana Lepolo has been rock solid. And that’s before we get to a deep bench that includes forwards Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi, to name two.

In a conference this tough, it is reasonable to expect that Stanford will run through the Pac-12 without a loss? Probably not. But is any other team in the conference as well-positioned as the Cardinal to win a title? Can’t see it right now.

Which team will surprise us?

Right now, the best candidate is USC. The Trojans rank ahead of Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State and Washington State in the NCAA NET rankings as of Friday and are 9-1 after Thursday’s three-point loss to UCLA. USC is still a bit of a mystery because it doesn’t have a clear barometer game under its belt yet. We are about to find out more from the Trojans’ current stretch, which includes UCLA at home, Texas on Sunday in Dallas and then a solid St. Mary’s team before USC opens its full conference schedule against the Oregon schools on the road.

But head coach Lindsay Gottlieb has put together a really interesting team, with seven transfers and a homegrown standout in sophomore guard/forward Rayah Marshall, who has blocked 27 shots already this season. Associate head coach Beth Burns has the team playing great defense; USC is allowing opponents to score an average of 49 points per game and shoot 32.8% from the floor. Those kind of defensive numbers can win you some games.

How many teams could be jockeying for NCAA Tournament position?

If the NCAA NET rankings are the guidepost, it could be as many as nine. The following teams rank among the top 68 teams in the nation (the same number as berths in the NCAA field) as of Friday: Stanford (2), Utah (6), Oregon (11), UCLA (20), USC (35), Arizona (39), Colorado (41), Oregon State (58) and Washington State (62). Those numbers will shift once the conference season starts and Pac-12 teams beat up on one another, and the realistic number is probably seven. But the conference would be thrilled to get eight of its 12 teams in.


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Who will be in the Player of the Year race?

At the moment, four frontrunners are setting the pace and tone for teams that should be at the top of the conference standings: Stanford’s Jones (the reigning POY) and Brink, UCLA guard Charisma Osborne and Utah forward Alissa Pili.

If Washington State can maintain its momentum from last season’s second-place finish and finish in the top four, guard Charlisse Leger-Walker could be a possibility because she will almost assuredly be among the league’s top scorers. Same goes for Oregon State guard Talia von Oelhoffen. But both of those players’ candidacies are going to depend on strong seasons from their teams.

Does the bottom of the Pac-12 rise?

It’s been an incredibly rough couple of years for the Cal Bears, who have won just six conference games in the last three seasons and have seen more than their share of injuries and COVID-19 stoppages. Last year, Cal played just 12 conference games, going 2-10. But with one of the conference’s most exciting young players in guard Jayda Curry and a pair of Pac-12 transfers in guard Kemery Martin (Utah) and forward Peanut Tuitele (Colorado), head coach Charmin Smith is hoping her team will be more competitive.

Washington, meanwhile, went 2-12 in its first conference season under head coach Tina Langley, but it already has a rivalry win over Washington State in the conference opener with five scorers in double figures. Its 8-1 record is the program’s best start since 2016-17, also known as the Kelsey Plum days.

Arizona State, playing in its first season under head coach Natasha Adair, has a high-scoring transfer in guard Tyi Skinner, a short bench, and a lot of things to figure out. The Sun Devils are off to a 6-4 start after three straight losses.

It looks like all three teams are capable of pulling off some upsets this season. That is going to make the conference stronger from top to bottom, even if those teams aren’t quite ready to break into the top half of the standings.

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.

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