November 27, 2023 

Pac-12 teams propelled by fifth-year players

Pac-12's final year as we know it could also be its best, thanks to a crop of college elders

Maturity. Stability. Experience. Opportunity.

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The players of this era of NCAA Basketball, the ones who were on rosters during the 2019-2020 season when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic upended their postseason dreams, their offseasons, their in-season protocols and daily routines and more, have also been given a unique gift.

The NCAA’s decision to offer this cohort of players across the country an opportunity to play a fifth-year of college basketball to make up for what was lost changed the game, and changed the end-of-career calculus for a group of players who are taking advantage of both the athletic and academic opportunities.

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And in the final season of the Pac-12, the players who have decided to stay for one more season are already turning this into a potentially historic campaign for the league, with a record five teams ranked in the top 10 in last week’s AP poll, and perhaps, in a few months, a record number of teams in position for the postseason.

“For my time, this is as good as the league has been and we just have to enjoy every minute and soak each other up,” said Colorado head coach J.R. Payne.

Which was exactly the impetus for some of the conference’s top veteran players — Colorado’s Jaylyn Sherrod and Quay Miller, Stanford’s Hannah Jump, UCLA’s Charisma Osborne, Washington State’s Bella Murekatete, Cal’s Leilani McIntosh and Arizona’s Esmery Martinez and Helena Pueyo — to make the decision to return for Season No. 5.

“For me, the way our season ended last year, I felt like I had so much more to give to the program whether it was from a basketball perspective or a leadership perspective,” said Jump about the Cardinal’s disappointing second-round NCAA Tournament exit last spring. “I felt like there was a lot more I wanted to be around.”

UCLA point guard Osborne said she wanted to wait on her decision until after the season was over, so she could take some time to think about it — leaving her just 48 hours before she had to decide whether to enter the WNBA Draft, where she may well have been a first-round draft pick.

“I knew this year’s team would have so much potential,” Osborne said. “I came here to win a Pac-12 championship and I wanted to come back for more.”

Osborne said that because of COVID and its aftermath, her freshman season (before the NCAA Tournament was canceled in spring of 2020) felt like the only truly “normal” season she experienced. She wanted that experience back as well.

“Once you leave, you don’t get to come back. And the WNBA will be there, and being able to get a master’s degree from UCLA isn’t a bad thing, either,” Osborne said.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes joked that she would have been a much better player if she had been offered a fifth season. Both Pueyo, the only player remaining from Arizona’s Final Four team in 2021, and Martinez turned down the opportunity to begin their professional careers overseas to return to Tucson.

“Helena got a good offer overseas, but I think she will still get that offer in a year,” Barnes said. “I think both her and Esmery enjoy the college experience. And they are both good students so getting a Masters is always helpful.

“These players have played at the highest level. They know what it feels like and what it looks like. We are super-young, so we need the leadership.”

Colorado’s Quay Miller said there was no question she would return after the Buffaloes’ made a run to the Sweet 16, pushing Iowa in the regional semifinal in Seattle.

“I knew from the second we stopped playing in Seattle that I was going to come back,” Miller said. “I just felt like we can go further.”

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Miller, Sherrod, Jump and Osborne are playing on teams currently sitting in the top 10 nationally. Murekatete is back following Washington State’s first-ever Pac-12 Tournament title last March.
Payne said that having Sherrod, who will earn two Master’s degrees by the time she graduates, and Miller back “means everything” to her emerging program.

“They are game-changers for us,” Payne said. “It gives us better depth, more shooters. Jaylyn and Quay are anchors. How many schools would like to have a fifth-year starting point guard?

Next year will be the final class in this group with an opportunity to choose a fifth season, putting players like Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Utah’s Alissa Pili and Washington State’s Charlisse Leger-Walker in the position to stay, even as the Pac-12 teams go their separate ways. They will have plenty of role models to follow after this season, should they decide to stick around.

“The fifth-years are all making us not just a better league, but they are all winners,” Payne said. “When kids play this long, they are resilient. They don’t crumble. And they have unfinished business.”

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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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