March 4, 2024 

Pac-12 looking to go out in fine tournament style

The Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas should be one of the most competitive conference tournaments in the land

To quote George Washington in Hamilton, “One last time. And if we do it right, we’ll teach them how to say goodbye.”

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What left is there to say about the final days of the current Pac-12? Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena will be the final gathering point of this group of teams, and what a group it’s been this season.

This should be one of the most competitive conference tournaments in the land — including a handful of legitimate Final Four-caliber teams fighting for seeding and home-court hosting — with a group of others who are looking to find their way into the NCAA brackets to wreak some west coast havoc.

This will be a bookend to the conference’s start in 2023, defined by nationally relevant victories and the emergence of multiple All-American performances.

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By the time Sunday’s final tips off, any number of teams could be competing for the final Pac-12 Tournament title. And it will only be the start of what figures to be a big ending for this standard-bearing conference.

Let’s break down this week’s 2023 tournament and its many possibilities.

Coming in hot

No. 1 seed Stanford. After an unreal weekend by senior Cameron Brink (45 points and 43 rebounds), the Cardinal, seeking their 16th title in this tournament, come into Las Vegas looking postseason prepared. The biggest question mark about Stanford at this point is the knee injury that has kept starting point guard Talana Lepolo out of two of the past three games.

No. 2 seed USC. The Trojans, who last won the Pac-12 Tourney back in 2014, come into the tournament with nine wins in 10 games. They defeated Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado. They won on the road against Arizona in double overtime. In eight of those games in this stretch, they haven’t allowed an opponent to score 70 points.

No. 3 seed UCLA. The Bruins are 7-1 with five straight wins sophomore post Lauren Betts returned to the lineup. In line for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, the team that lost four games between Jan. 14 and Feb. 4 looks to be long in the rear-view mirror. UCLA, which has been a runner-up in this tournament six times since 2010, held opponents to under 60 points in each of its five consecutive wins.

No. 10 seed Washington. Even with a weekend split, the big win over Utah in Salt Lake City sent a message: the Huskies are looking for a chance to earn an NCAA Tournament berth with a strong run in this tournament. Washington has won three of its last four games, with senior Lauren Schwartz leading the way. The Huskies have never reached the tournament title game.

Momentum check

No. 5 seed Colorado. In the course of just a few weeks, the Buffaloes went from being a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament to the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament with five losses in the last six games, including Saturday’s devastating home loss to Washington State. If Colorado wants to hold on to its chance to host NCAA Tournament games in Boulder, they are going to have to right the ship in Las Vegas.

No. 6 seed Utah. The Utes probably lost their opportunity to host first- and second-round games with a tough stretch that has included three losses in their final seven conference games and ended Saturday with a disappointing loss to Washington. The Pac-12 Tournament presents an opportunity for this experienced team to pick up the pieces.

No. 7 seed Arizona. Wildcats coach Adia Barnes thought if her team could get one win last weekend against the LA schools in Tucson, they would secure their NCAA position. Instead, Arizona absorbed a double OT loss to USC and then got dominated by a surging UCLA team. And now they have work to do. With a 34 NET ranking, the Wildcats still likely need a win (or two) to get off the bubble.

No. 8 seed Cal. The best team that Cal has fielded since 2018 needs tournament wins for a longshot at the NCAA brackets. The Bears, who last won consecutive games on Feb. 9-11 on the Washington trip, haven’t been to a tourney semifinal since 2016.

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Most intriguing first-round matchup

Arizona vs. Washington. Two teams with NCAA hopes and a lot of talented defensive players. Expect a low-scoring, knock-down, drag-out battle. Washington split with the Wildcats this season, with a two-point win followed by a triple overtime loss in Tucson two weeks ago.

Most intriguing potential second-round matchup

USC vs. Arizona/Washington. The Trojans have eyes on a title, but neither of these teams will give them an easy path out of the first game. Arizona took USC to double overtime last weekend and the Huskies won the only meeting between the two teams, 62-59 on Jan. 28.

Players to watch

JuJu Watkins, USC. In the first postseason tournament of her career, the Trojans’ superstar freshman looks as ready as she can be. She comes in averaging 27.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and has five 30+ point games against ranked opponents.

Ioanna Krimili, Cal. The Bears’ graduate transfer guard has had some very big games this season, averaging 13.7 points a game. Krimili is in the middle of something of a scoring drought — with 32 points over the last five games — but has the potential to go big with seven 20-point games this season. Krimili leads the Pac-12 during conference play for 3-pointers made (47).

Phillipina Kyei, Oregon. If the Ducks are going to pull off an upset here, it will be because of their double-double machine. The junior is averaging 12.8 points, 12.1 rebounds and has 20 career double-doubles.

Talia von Oelhoffen, Oregon State. The Beavers junior guard missed last year’s tournament with an injury. She has stuff to catch up on. von Oelhoffen is OSU’s floor leader and do-everything player, and a 27-point effort in a loss to Stanford shows the damage she can do.

Kiki Iriafen, Stanford. The younger half of Stanford’s dynamic post duo, Iriafen has found her consistency this season. Iriafen is the Pac-12’s third-leading scorer at 18.5 points and third in rebounds per game (10.9).

Lauren Schwartz, Washington. On a team with a defensive identity, Schwartz is the offensive leader, averaging 15.7 points a game over the last eight games.

Lauren Betts, UCLA. The sophomore post’s play — leading the team with 14.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game with 54 blocks — has catapulted the Bruins into the highest echelons of the national rankings this season. Last season, playing for Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament, Betts played a total of 18 minutes and scored 12 points. Her workload will be considerably more for the Bruins this week.

Fond Farewells

Hannah Jump, Stanford. As of Saturday, the Cardinal’s all-time leaders in games played with 161.

Charisma Osborne, UCLA. The Bruins’ fifth-year senior is UCLA’s all-time leading scorer in the NCAA era.

Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado. The Buffaloes all-time leader in games started (126).

Cameron Brink, Stanford. Not sure whether Brink will play next year but making no assumptions. During her stellar senior season, Brink has been one of the most effective players in the country on both ends of the floor.

Alissa Pili, Utah. The Utes’ senior post has been a game-changer for their program. She has posted four games this season scoring 30 or more points and 16 games scoring 20 or more points.

Quay Miller, Colorado. One of only 35 players in program history to top 1,000 career points (1,039) and she’s 16th in career rebounds (673).

Esmery Martinez, Arizona. Martinez’s decision to return rather than begin her pro career overseas proved pivotal to the Wildcats this season. Martinez is averaging 11.5 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.

Helena Pueyo, Arizona. The fifth-year senior ranks seventh among active DI players in career steals with 294. That number puts her second in program history.

Bella Murekatete, Washington State. Murekatete is the Cougars’ all-time leader in rebounds (949), blocks (183), starts (139) and games played (147).

Jaddan Simmons, Arizona State. Simmons was one of the few players to stay through ASU’s coaching transition and started 106 games in four seasons.

Leilani McIntosh, Cal. McIntosh is one of only three players in the nation to average at least 9.0 PPG, 5.0 APG, 1.5 SPG and shoot 40.0% from 3-point range. She’s the only one to do it from a major conference.

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Don’t be surprised if…

USC or Colorado end up in the title game. Both of these teams can pin down an opponent’s ability to score and, in a tournament with multiple games over multiple days, that could spell trouble for opponents.

Oregon State makes a championship run. With forward Raegan Beers back in the lineup, the Beavers have enough offensive firepower to stay a while in Vegas. With two wins each over Colorado and Utah and a win over UCLA, they are the team no one wants to see.

A “bubble team” does enough to make the NCAA field. Arizona, Washington State, Washington and Cal are all playing to get into the brackets. One of them will do it based on a strong tournament performance.

The Big Questions

Who could be the surprise team in this tournament? Washington has wins over USC, Oregon State and Utah and an overtime loss to Stanford. The Huskies aren’t likely a title contender, but they could be a bracket disruptor.

How many teams will keep playing after Vegas? A total of 10. Seven in the NCAA field and three more into the new WNIT. This conference has to get rewarded for what it’s done this season.

Will someone other than Stanford hoist the trophy? The best bet for that to happen lies with the Los Angeles schools. Both USC and UCLA have one Pac-12 title each. It might be time for a second. But it’s hard to bet against Tara VanDerveer in her final Pac-12 Tournament.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and 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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