We caught up with some of the best players in the PAC 12 on media day to find out who they think will be the toughest competition in the conference.

Stanford expected to dominate Pac-12 -- but challengers are lurking

November 8, 2012 - 4:43pm
All-American Chiney Ogwumike is expected to lead Stanford to another Pac-12 title. (photo by Kelly Kline)

All-American Chiney Ogwumike is expected to lead Stanford to another Pac-12 title. (photo by Kelly Kline)

Throughout the Pac-12, coaches are more determined, players are healthier, and teams are deeper and more promising than they were a season ago. But while hope springs eternal, conference-giant Stanford springs forward with a revolving-door of high school all-Americans willing to tailor their games to coach Tara VanDerveer’s demanding, team-oriented system.

Over the last six seasons, the battle between Stanford and its Pac-12 competitors has been an overwhelming mismatch. The Cardinal has captured six straight regular season titles and conference tournaments while winning their last 78 games against Pac-12 opponents. So while conference runner-up California returns all five starters and NCAA hopefuls USC, UCLA and Oregon State are healthy and formidable, none can say for certain if they are championship caliber until they see VanDerveer on the sideline and preseason conference player of the year Chiney Ogwumike in the paint.

Simply, with the Cardinal’s undefeated streak, no current Pac-12 players have ever beaten Stanford. Think you can knock the queen from her perch without a template or an example of how it’s done? And the unique situation isn’t just intimidating for the players. Only two of the other 11 coaches — WSU’s June Daugherty and Arizona State’s Charli Turner Thorne — have ever beaten Stanford, but none of their wins are more recent than 2006.

So while VanDerveer may be concerned about life without WNBA Rookie of the Year Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the Hall of Fame coach isn’t surveying the current landscape of the league before announcing her goals. “You know, I don’t ever worry about anybody else,” VanDerveer said at the recent Pac-12 media day.  “I could not even name anyone else’s starting lineup. I focus on our team. I have a lot of confidence in our players and we want to be playing in the end of March and April.”

1. Stanford (35-2, 18-0 in 2012)

What will life be like without the two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year? The elder Ogwumike became so polished in her four years on the Farm that she ultimately became the most equipped frontcourt performer many had ever seen on the college level. By the time Ogwumike was done, she could provide leadership, rebound, post up, and score while jumping over the opposition with her freakish athletic ability. So expect a dropoff for the Cardinal? Not when the team’s legendary coach has won 81 percent of the time in her 33-year career, and 90 percent of her games in the last six seasons.

Four starters return, including little sister Chiney, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, with aspirations to become as accomplished as Nneka in her remaining two years. In the last two seasons, Ogwumike operated as an all-American-level garbage woman, by managing to produce eye-popping statistics without VanDerveer ever needing to run plays for her. This time around, the 6-3 junior will be the offensive focal point, working inside as usual and stepping away occasionally with her newly-developed jump shot. “I understand that with Nneka leaving I have to work that much harder,” Ogwumike said when asked to compare this year’s team to last.

The backcourt of Toni Kokenis and Amber Orrange returns as well along with Joslyn Tinkle, a 6-3 long-range shooter with the ability to defend and rebound at the defensive end. But Stanford expects to see the biggest boost from 6-3 reserves, Mikaela Ruef, Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson, who can shoot with range and in the cases of Ruef and Greenfield, facilitate as well.

According to VanDerveer, the Iowa native Greenfield will be an all-conference player — whether she starts or comes off the bench — if she continues to perform at the level she’s shown thus far at preseason practices. Or, to put it another way, the rich get richer.

2. California (25-10, 13-5)

It’s not often that a coach embraces a season-ending NCAA round-of-32 loss, but California’s  Lindsay Gottlieb has, citing the Bears’ narrow loss to Notre Dame as a perfect lead-in to this season in which expectations are through the roof for a team picked between 12th and 16th nationally in preseason polls.

“This year it’s more about trying to become one of the few elite teams in women’s college basketball,” Gottlieb said when asked to compare this season’s expectations to last.  “And I will say we have a group that has the utmost respect for how hard it is to win a championship, but now it’s a group that we can talk about doing that.  I don’t think they’re OK to be second anymore.”

In losing, Cal still frustrated Notre Dame on its home floor with the Bears' ability to close off driving and passing lanes that the Irish had enjoyed throughout their season. Gottlieb’s scouting report, which was followed to the letter, utilized Cal’s quick hands and feet so well that the contest was tied at the half. ESPN’s Doris Burke, who provided commentary for both of Cal’s NCAA games, raved at the team’s entertaining style as well as its ability to embrace and execute a scouting report that was cooked up in a narrow, 36-hour window prior to the game.

All five starters return for Cal, a team without a senior on the roster last season. All-conference guard Layshia Clarendon is joined by all-freshman pick Brittany Boyd in the backcourt with sophomore Reshanda Gray up front flanked by seniors Gennifer Brandon and Talia Caldwell. While Cal won 25 games a year ago, the players bristled at several narrow losses that cost them national recognition. This season, Gottlieb expects Cal to win the close ones as consistency and conditioning become paramount for the team’s sophomore standouts, Gray, Boyd and Justine Hartman, the highest rated high school player to ever sign with the Bears.

3. University of Southern California (18-12, 12-6)

USC is healthy for a change, the biggest news for the program that’s spent the last few seasons with an injury list so lengthy that it dwarfed the team’s post-season aspirations. In addition to the injuries, the Women of Troy suffered some head-scratching results, such as the 58-56 loss to Arkansas State in December, that don’t go away come tournament-selection time like blue ink on a dry erase board. 

Michael Cooper expects to have a deeper, talented frontcourt with transfer Kate Oliver and redshirt sophomore Thaddesia Southall joining returning starters Cassie Harberts and Christina Marinacci. The lack of depth didn’t help the Trojans win previously, but it did aid Harberts’ development. The junior started every game last season and will likely see her 12 points and six rebounds increase even if she plays fewer than the 34 minutes a game she played as a sophomore.

It’s not often that three high school teammates — all 6-1 — end up in the same Division I program, but Southern California's Mater Dei isn’t an ordinary high school program, so expect freshman Jordan Adams, redshirt freshman Kiki Alofaituli and sophomore Alexyz Vaioletama to be plenty busy in Cooper’s backcourt. All-freshman pick Ariya Crook figures to be the starter at the point after she produced a couple of eye-opening performances in conference play last season.

The Trojans have just two NCAA appearances since 1997, in part because they’ve never lost fewer than six conference games in any of those 15 seasons. Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 this season, USC should break that threshold as well as navigate a typically murderous non-conference schedule that has Nebraska, Duke, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt all visiting the Galen Center.

USC head coach Michael Cooper does a series of fun and informing interviews with various players and coaches around the PAC-12 including: Tara Vanderveer, Niya Butts, Charli Turner-Thorne and women's basketball announcers Beth Mowins and Kara Lawson.

4. UCLA (14-16, 9-9)

UCLA is also trumpeting its health as Jasmine Dixon, Atonye Nyingifa and Tennessee transfer Alyssia Brewer all return to action for second-year coach Cori Close. The Bruins impressed Pac-12 observers last season by going 9-9 in conference play, winning several close games and never using their reduced numbers as an excuse. With last season’s attitude and this season’s health and depth, Close has the NCAA in her sights for March. 

The Bruins will attack from the wings frequently in their newly-installed motion offense that will look to take advantage of the unique skills of Dixon and returning starter Markel Walker. The undersized duo is a matchup nightmare when healthy with their abilities to score inside and out. Walker missed the first seven games last year after thumb surgery and favored the heavily-wrapped thumb for the rest of the schedule. 

Brewer is healthy for first time in three years, but Close feels the high-IQ post will stay on the floor, be an exceptional passer, and free Dixon and Walker from unfavorable matchups at the defensive end. Returners Thea Lemberger and Mariah Williams will be pushed by highly touted freshman Nirra Fields in UCLA’s reconfigured backcourt.

5. Oregon State University (20-13, 9-9)

The Oregon State Beavers remains the Pac-12’s best story, a program beset by bad publicity surrounding the departure of previous coach LaVonda Wagner that never sunk to predicted dire levels in two seasons under new coach Scott Rueck. The OSU alumnus had to conduct open tryouts and invite walk-ons when he took over the program left bare by transferring players, but managed to be respectable and win when chemistry developed quickly among his new players.

Coming off a 20-13 season in which OSU finished fifth in conference and made a run in the WNIT, Rueck, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, must replace leading scorer Earlysia Marchbanks while integrating five freshmen into his rotation. Sophomore guard Ali Gibson and shot-blocking post Patricia Bright are the standouts, but starting guards Sage Indendi and Alyssa Martin return as well, meaning the Beavers should be in the postseason mix again.

Opposing team’s game plans are most indicative of OSU’s success as conference opponents have all attempted to force the patient, methodical Beavers out of their effective, halfcourt sets. How that battle of wills plays out will be most telling as Rueck is determined to play through his four post players — all 6-3 or taller — and not be sped up by aggressive, defensive schemes.

6. Utah (16-16, 8-10)

Utah assumed it would make a big splash last season, its first in the Pac-12 after departing the Mountain West. The Utes had the tradition, with 17 NCAA appearances, and the talent, with the core of their 2011 tournament qualifiers returning. But injuries changed all of that, not just with the maddening variety of ailments, but the timing of the injuries that left coach Anthony Levrets scrambling as the Utes prepared for the season’s biggest games.

Juniors Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski provide Utah with much-needed continuity as the pair started every game, playing 30 minutes plus a year ago. Wicijowski can rebound and score in the paint, and Plouffe can do a little bit of everything, giving Levrets an elite duo to build around. 

In the backcourt, Iwalani Rodrigues and Rachel Messer are returning starters but neither are Pac-12-level point guards. So Levrets is expecting that either freshman Awa Kalmstrom or Danielle Rodriguez will successfully take the reins. If it all comes together, expect Utah be typically stingy defensively (55.8 ppg last season) but more adroit offensively.

7. Colorado (21-14, 6-12)

Linda Lappe was a scrappy player who helped revive Colorado basketball by leading the Buffs to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in her junior and senior years in 2002 and 2003. According to senior Meagan Macolm-Peck, who grew up in Boulder watching the Buffs play, her future coach stood out with her skinny frame, knee pads and constant floor burns as she paid little regard to some serious injuries, including a broken kneecap that cost her parts of two seasons.

Not surprisingly, a maddening stretch during which Colorado lost 11 of 14 -- after a 13-1 start -- didn’t sit well with the 33-year old Lappe. The Buffs dropped a couple of close games late, occasionally got pushed around in the paint, and developed a habit for missing makeable shots. So this fall, Lappe’s group has spent considerable time working on shooting form and footwork, in hopes of improving on a shooting percentage that dropped dramatically to 36.6 percent from the field during their first run through the Pac-12.

All-Pac 12 guard Chucky Jeffrey’s shooting suffered the most as opposing defenses focused on stopping the Buff’s leader in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. This season, junior Brittany Wilson and freshman Lauren Higgins should diversify Colorado’s offensive attack while sophomore Jen Reese and redshirt freshman Arielle Roberson will provide resistance in the paint. 

Lappe opened eyes while describing Roberson, whose brother, Andre is an all-conference performer and NBA prospect for the Colorado men, saying “If you seen Andre, you’ve basically seen Arielle. She gets off her feet very quickly. I think she has a much better outside game maybe than Andre if you are going to compare the two.”

8. Arizona State (20-12, 10-8)

After a year-long sabbatical, Charli Turner Thorne returns to coach the Sun Devils for a 16th season. Turner Thorne felt the year-round grind of coaching and recruiting had taken away from relationships with her husband and kids and she used the time off to strengthen those bonds.

On the floor, ASU remains a defensive nightmare for opponents, who must quickly adjust to narrow passing lanes, contested shots and limited rebounds when facing the Sun Devils. Turner Thorne has plenty of experience as well with Janae Fulcher and Mikaela Pickens back as well as Eliza Normen and Joy Burke, who return after missing the entire 2011-12 season with injuries. 

A lack of proven offensive performers will keep ASU from the Pac-12’s upper division and that issue was exacerbated by the announcement that starting point guard Deja Mann will miss the season because of a knee injury suffered in practice in October. Mann was the only Sun Devil who could create her own shot and that element will be sorely missed when scouting reports begin circulating through the league.

9. Washington (20-14, 8-10)

Kevin McGuff left Xavier for Washington a year ago for the challenge of attempting to topple Stanford atop the Pac-12. Now the foundation is in place for the former Notre Dame assistant who made five NCAA appearances in his nine years at Xavier. McGuff has a 20-win season under his belt in Seattle, returning scorers in Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Jazmine Davis and senior Kristi Kingma, and a top-20 recruiting class featuring Seattle native Katie Collier and Heather Corral.

Given all that, the Huskies might take a step back this season after finishing tied for seventh in league play a year ago. Washington appears thin in the frontcourt with Collier injured and out for the season and Regina Rogers, UW’s unique scoring and rebounding force, graduated. Also the chemistry between Kingma and Davis -- two players who like the ball in their hands — is yet to be determined as Kingma missed the entire 2011-12 season with a knee injury.

Washington’s non-conference schedule doesn’t appear too daunting, but the Huskies will need to be at their best down the stretch as they get all seven teams predicted to finish at the top of the Pac-12 in their final eight games.

10. Washington State (13-20, 5-13)

After an upset win in the conference tournament quarterfinals over USC, Washington State coach June Daugherty looked like the president, shaking hands and receiving congratulations in the hallways of the Galen Center as WSU fans seemingly came out of the woodwork. For a basketball program with little or no history, this was a big moment for the Cougars: Daugherty had given her university its first two postseason wins in women’s basketball … ever.

Yes, the first two. In 31 years, Washington State has qualified for one NCAA tournament, in 1991, and then lost in the first round. Until last season’s Pac-12 conference tournament, no postseason wins for the Cougars.  WSU hasn’t had a winning record in conference play in 20 years, so Daugherty, the eternal optimist, couldn’t be better matched for her job. Now in her sixth season in Pullman, Coach June is a walking, talking, preaching, recruiting, scheduling dynamo the likes of which have never been seen in Eastern Washington.

“We’re always going to challenge ourselves,” she said at her ready-made Pac-12 media day pulpit. “I’ll put this out there: In the Pac-12, if you’re a coach, if you have the privilege of coaching in this league, then you better schedule nationally.”

So get this: Daugherty welcomes six freshmen this fall -- she says they all can play -- and then schedules Ohio State, Louisville, Syracuse and Gonzaga. WSU returns veterans Carly Noyes, Sage Romberg, Katie Grad and gets shooter Ireti Amojo and point guard Tia Presley back from season-ending injuries and Daugherty says they can win. And while the veteran coach is making all these pronouncements, you can picture 15 student-athletes standing behind her nodding their approval.  Now that’s pretty powerful stuff.

11. Oregon (15-16, 7-11)

Paul Westhead, the Guru of Go, returns to Oregon for a fourth year of run-and-gun with a purpose, and more than ever, observers have to wonder how it’s going to work. Eight of Westhead’s 14 players are 5-11 or shorter and of those above six feet, only Danielle Love and Liz Brenner are surefire contributors. But Brenner’s a three-sport star at Oregon, committed chiefly to volleyball, and may play in only half the games. At point guard, the most important position in Oregon’s perpetual fast break, former walk-on Laura Stanulis gets the call and she averaged 12 minutes a game, without a start, in 2011-12.

Did we mention that Oregon had issues with shooting percentage and rebounding last year with a more accomplished roster? If so, then we’ve outlined the conundrum the Ducks find themselves in as they attempt to finish better than 11th or last in this year’s Pac-12 race.

12. Arizona (15-17, 3-15)

Former Tennessee star Niya Butts is back with Arizona for a fifth season and she has a plan to reverse last season’s slide in which the Wildcats dropped 15 of their 18 conference games and finished last. Without any breakout stars among the five newcomers, Butts has issued a challenge to all-conference performer Davellyn Whyte, forward Erica Barnes and guard Candice Warthen to step it up big time — as players and leaders — in an attempt to get the Cats out of the cellar.

Such challenges are only as good as the person issuing them, and Butts, a two-time national champion with the Volunteers, and one of America’s most sought after young coaches when she signed with Arizona in 2008, fits the bill.  Now her Wildcats have to take the challenge to the floor and produce.