West Coast fans have long complained that the Pac-12 Conference gets no respect.
They are right for the most part, as gamecasts don’t often swing to the Left Coast unless an opponent from another big conference is involved. But to be fair, there traditionally hasn’t been much in the Pac-12 aside from Stanford worth a national broadcast.
Yes, Stanford has made the Final Four each of the last four years but consider the rest: UCLA made it to the NCAA Tournament second round in 2010 and 2011, Cal did the same thing last year, and Arizona State made it to the Elite Eight in 2009. But beyond that, there have been only fleeting contenders throughout the history of the conference, and none with the staying power seen in other major leagues.
Change may be brewing, however.
This year has been different for the Pac-12. For most of the season, four schools have been ranked in the top 25: Stanford, Cal, UCLA and Colorado, which is the first time as many teams have been ranked in six years.
The gap between Stanford, which has won nine of the conference’s 11 titles since the tournament began, and Cal in particular, is also closing. For the last five weeks, the two programs have been ranked side by side, midway through the top ten. Last month, Stanford and Cal split their annual game series for the first time in three years, beating each other on their respective home courts.
The Cardinal, led by the ebullient and skilled Chiney Ogwumike, aren’t as deep as they have been in the past. The Bears, on the other hand, are rising under second-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who inspires tough, aggressive play from her squad.
Devotees of both teams have taken to debating the quality of the other team's losses and close wins. Fan reaction to Cal's victory in the series was one of excitement and joy, but it wasn't for lack of respect toward Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and her program -- it was the fact that they finally had a legitimate challenger.
Several more appear to be in the making.
The Bruins, now under former Florida State associate head coach Cori Close, have returned to the top 25 this year, and stayed there with relative unknowns on the roster. Close seems to be keeping a low profile, but she is producing results.
UCLA head coach Cori Close has the Bruins back in the national conversation. (photo by Don Liebig/UCLA Athletics)
The Buffs are ranked again for the first time in years under coach Linda Lappe, who this past weekend discussed how she hopes to create a contending program: daily changes and improvement that contribute to long-term growth.
"One of our goals is to try to get better and to do the little things that it takes to be uncommon, to do the things that not every team does," Lappe said. "That's what it takes to be a top 25 team, and to be in the NCAA Tournament. There's just a lot of little things -- it's not the big things that make the difference."
But outside the top four, other programs have their sights set on replicating Lappe’s work at Colorado. Oregon State turned heads last year with a 20-13 record and a round three appearance in the WNIT under then-second year coach Scott Rueck. The Beavers have been severely damaged by injuries this season, but if healthy next year, they should continue their meteoric rise under Rueck – a national championship coach at the Division III level before he returned to his alma mater.
The University of Washington was in a similar position with injuries last season, as Kevin McGuff took the reins. This year, at almost full strength with a young squad, the Huskies have earned a 16-5 record and are 8-2 in conference. McGuff has a proven record of success, taking Xavier to the NCAA Tournament each of the last five years he was there prior to coming to Washington, so there’s reason to expect more of the same in Seattle.
Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne has been criticized for taking a sabbatical last season, but she took up where she left off this year and has coached the Sun Devils to an 11-11 record so far, with no returning starters. With a breather under her belt, she should return to her winning ways soon as players become more seasoned.
Other Pac-12 teams could rise in the near future as well, given the right changes. USC’s roster is loaded with talent that it can’t actualize, for whatever reason. Utah needs to stay healthy and increase their depth, and the Utes should be on their way up.
Back at the top, though, Cal has a good chance to knock off Stanford for the conference tournament title. The Cardinal routed the Bears in last year’s championship match up, but this year they don’t have leading scorer Nnemkadi Ogwumike, and Cal has much more experience – and some hungry seniors.
Perhaps even more significantly, the Pac-12 could receive up to four NCAA Tournament bids for their ranked teams. Stanford and Cal seem a lock to repeat their trips this year. UCLA has been upset once by an unranked opponent, and Colorado’s only three losses have all been at the hands of ranked teams. Those circumstances could mean bids for both the Bruins and Buffs.
It is no coincidence that the programs on the rise within the Pac-12 seem to have a foundation of stability, and strong leadership in their head coaches. If even three teams receive bids to the NCAA Tournament this year, the days of ignoring the West Coast’s major conference may be over.
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