August 31, 2023
WNBA stars reflect on the dissolution of the Pac-12
'I played with and against these women my whole life'
LOS ANGELES – It wasn’t ideal for the Los Angeles Sparks to have their Aug. 24 home game against the Phoenix Mercury away from their usual Crypto.com Arena home. But the temporary relocation to USC’s Galen Center did offer seven players and two coaches who all went to Pac-12 schools a sort of homecoming —and a moment to realize the gravity of what was about to be lost.
“It’s really sad anytime you see anything you were a part of get dissolved,” said Cal alum and Sparks guard Layshia Clarendon. “You don’t have that same nostalgia or ability to go back.”
The conference that has, arguably, been the best in college women’s basketball for the last decade is about to dissolve entirely. UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington are headed to the Big Ten in 2024. Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado will join the Big 12. Only four teams are left, for now: Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State.
With the future of the Pac-12, particularly of non-football sports, in question due to realignment, players at the next level are reflecting on the challenges ahead, the changes players will experience, and how their own careers would be different without their time in the Pac-12.
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The impact is sure to be felt across every WNBA roster, given that 20 players in the league come from 12 schools, a representation that gives the conference the highest ratio of any college conference, at least for one final season. (The Big 10 has 23 from 14 schools, and the ACC has 23 from its 15 schools).
The former Pac-12 players in the WNBA know that, too, and feel a kinship with each other.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie,” said Sparks guard Karlie Samuelson, a Southern California native and Stanford alum. “I played with and against these women my whole life, basically.”
Out West, the history of women’s basketball goes way back — all the way to the very beginning.
The Pac-12 has existed in some format since 1915, when it was founded with four schools as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC). With a core eight sticking together, the conference added Arizona and Arizona State to become the Pac-10 in 1978, then grabbed Utah and Colorado in 2011 and rebranded as the Pac-12.
Some Pac-10/12 schools had women’s athletes playing basketball in the early days. Stanford and Cal played the first-ever women’s college basketball game in 1896 — yes, you read that right, 1896 — in front of a crowd of 700 in San Francisco. But it would take 90 years for the then-Pac-10 to officially support women’s sports.
In the early years of the conference, USC won back-to-back national championships with stars like Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie. But Stanford would emerge as the conference’s stalwart from there, with Tara VanDerveer leading the Cardinal to two national championships in 1990 and 1992, along with six Final Fours in the 90s — as well as sending dozens of players to the WNBA after its formation in 1997.
Now, the history of the WNBA can’t be told without the Pac-12, especially given that the rest of the conference has leveled up to make it the deepest league in the sport. This year’s WNBA All-Star Game was proof alone, with four All-Stars from three different schools: Satou Sabally and Sabrina Ionescu, from Oregon; Kelsey Plum, from Washington; and Nneka Ogwumike, from Stanford.
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The pride in the conference’s history is there for many of the alums in the WNBA, including from Nneka Ogwumike, a former WNBA MVP and the current president of the player’s association who starred at Stanford alongside her sister, Chiney.
“I love being able to say I played in the Pac-10 and the Pac-12,” Ogwumike told The Next. “There’s a lot of rich history there. I think it was one of, if not maybe as much today, one of the most underrated conferences.”
It may have been underrated when the Ogwumikes were there, but the Pac-12 has only grown stronger and deeper in recent years. In 2021, we even saw an all-Pac-12 national title game, where Stanford beat Arizona by a single point. Three players from those two teams have played significant minutes in the WNBA this year – Aari McDonald, Lexie Hull, and Haley Jones.
Last year, the Pac-12 saw its No. 7 seed Washington State win the conference tournament before sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament. Even with No. 1 seed Stanford’s shocking upset, the Pac-12 still had three teams make it to the Sweet Sixteen, with Utah giving eventual National Champion LSU the closest game the Tigers played all tournament.
“From [No.] 1 through No. 12, regardless of what you were ranked, you were always going to get the best competition from everybody,” UCLA alum and Phoenix Mercury forward Michaela Onyenwere said. “It was never easy.”
That sentiment was shared by Onyenwere’s college teammate and Sparks point guard Jordin Canada, too.
“Once I got to UCLA and the conference, I realized how competitive it was,” Canada told The Next. “Every game you’re going to get a great game, no matter who you’re playing.”
Onyenwere made a somewhat joking note of the Pac-12’s self-ascribed Conference of Champions nickname, adding that it exists “for a reason.” In the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, six Pac-12 schools have made the Final Four at least once — two more schools than the next-closest conference.
“In my time at Stanford, the Pac-12 was one of, if not the best college basketball conference,” Indiana Fever guard Lexie Hull said on a recent Locked On Women’s Basketball Podcast episode. “We had over half of the teams going to the NCAA tournament every year and competing to make it to the Final Four. My year when we won the national championship, it was two Pac-12 teams, so it’s been a powerhouse of a conference for women’s basketball alone. Seeing that go away, it’s sad.”
One thing that baffles former Pac-12 players about these imminent changes? The potential travel required for schools entering a new conference.
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The West is geographically spread as it is, meaning most road trips do require a flight. But the conference’s paired scheduling system — in women’s basketball, conference games are typically played on a Friday-Sunday schedule — combined with flights that are two hours or less allowed for easier transportation than what will come starting in 2024-25.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Ogwumike said. “I just really hope that we can do something that shows equity across the board for these college athletes when it comes to being competitive, while also being reasonable with these kids having to sustain their lives.”
She isn’t the only Stanford alum worried. Samuelson told The Next that she was concerned for students’ academics and social lives given the amount they’ll have to travel for games.
Clarendon, who led the Bears to the program’s only Final Four appearance in history in 2013, said location definitely played a part in her decision.
“The West Coast is like an underrated powerhouse for basketball, and it’s one of the reasons I went to Cal: I didn’t want to go cross-country,” Clarendon told The Next. “I wanted basketball to be better in California. I wanted to make history at a school.”
Ionescu, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft out of Oregon and still works for her alma mater as the basketball program’s Director of Athletic Culture, recently told reporters that athletes will have to make sacrifices when it comes to missing class time due to travel, but trusts that those in power “made the best decision with the athletes in mind.”
Of course, players like Ionescu and Canada both know where their former schools will be playing next year, leaving a sense of excitement and hope, even in the face of what Canada calls “new challenges and new adversity” to come.
“They have a special group of girls and a great coaching staff that’s going to push them to be very successful,” Canada told The Next. “I’m excited for them to move into the Big Ten and see what they do.”
That isn’t necessarily the case for alums of Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State, though. Cal and Stanford are in the process of seeking admittance into the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the closest conference mate to the two in the San Francisco Bay Area would be Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana — more than 2,200 miles away.
Oregon State and Washington State could end up knocked out of the ranks of the Power 5 all together. Or the quartet could stick together and try to rebuild their conference.
For alums like Clarendon, Ogwumike, and Samuelson, they all want their alma maters to land in a conference with strong competition, especially given the impact that a good strength of schedule can have on not only tournament seeding, but on recruiting.
“I don’t want to see [Cal] left behind,” Clarendon said. “Your strength of schedule really matters. So I know [Cal] struggled the last few years, but we’re in a good conference. So whatever your record looks like, you’re playing against a top-25 team every other night in the Pac-12.”
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Stanford was dominant even when the rest of the Pac-12 wasn’t, which is why the Cardinal has won 26 regular season titles and 15 conference tournament championships. Wherever VanDerveer’s program ends up, her WNBA alums know they’ll maintain a high level of competition.
“The good thing about women’s basketball right now is that the level is rising in general,” Samuelson said. “Lots of schools in Division I are getting incredible players, so I think overall with the level rising, whatever conference they enter into will be good.”
But the chance remains that an institution of sport, and particularly of women’s basketball, could completely crumble in the days ahead. It’s why the overall sentiment has been sadness from the Pac-12 alumni across the WNBA.
Though, as Clarendon pointed out, there is some humor to be found at the end.
“Thank God I got in the Pac-12 Hall of Fame before it blew up,” they said.