2013-14 PAC 12 women's basketball preview: Cardinal picked to win conference; others threaten

October 30, 2013 - 6:12pm
No. 13 Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford, was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

No. 13 Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford, was the Pac-12 Player of the Year. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

There's old "news" and new news for the upcoming Pac-!2 women's basketball season.

The old news: The 11-time reigning champion Stanford Cardinal are (yawn) yet again the favorite of both the media and conference coaches to take the title, if not to run the table, in the league this season, having taken both the regular-season and the conference tournament title for the past seven seasons.

The new news: A 12th Stanford Pac-12 conference championship is far from a foregone conclusion. This time around, there will be some serious competition for the perennial conference heavyweights. Fortified by last season's trip to the Final Four where they fell to Louisville in the national semifinal, California, who last year broke its Bay Area rival's 81-game winning streak against conference opponents, will once again be a force to be reckoned with. Both Stanford (No. 3) and Cal (No. 9) ranked in the top 10 nationally in the preseason Coaches' Poll released yesterday.

After the top two teams, the race will be wide open. Four Pac-12 teams made the NCAA tournament last season, but that number could easily jump to a half-dozen in ’13-14. UCLA was a terrific story last season under then second-year coach Cori Close, challenging Stanford in the conference tournament and making it as far as the second round in the NCAA Tournament. The injury bug has already taken a deep bite out of their hopes for this year, but the Bruins, ranked No. 25, certainly can't be overlooked. Nor can Colorado, which weighed in at No. 19 despite the graduation of leading scorer Chuckie Jeffery. The Buffs vaulted into the NCAA tournament last season and will be looking to take that next step to become a consistent conference contender. Utah, the other conference newcomer last year, will also be looking to make a statement.

And all eyes will also be on Cynthia Cooper as she takes the reins at her alma mater after considerable coaching success in the mid-majors: Will she be able to bring back the glory days for the Women of Troy? Cooper will have an ace on hand in Cassie Harberts, one of the best players in America whose supporting cast has been bolstered by a combination of talented newcomers and players back from injury.

And throughout the conference, there’s a bunch of very good sophomores for up-and-coming teams, most notably in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington, Oregon State and Washington State are all looking to make youth-infused jumps up in the rankings this season. Even Oregon, which slumped to last place in the conference standings in ’12-13, and won just four games on the season, could enjoy a revival. The Ducks are healthy, and they have a host of very good players.

On any given night, there are a host of teams that could give Stanford a run for its money, all of which makes it look to be a great year for women's hoops in the Pac-12. As first-year Washington coach Mike Neighbors summed up the situation at Pac-12 media day, "I think there's a lot of people that can maybe beat Stanford on a one-game basis, but to win the title two or three people have to do that. ... That's where their dominance is so impressive. They may lose a game here, they may catch a bad break there, they may get in some foul trouble. I think there's a handful of teams that if you catch them on a night when they don't play to their normal level, their normal standard, there's about four, five teams, maybe six, that could beat them. Hopefully, we're trying to close that gap."

That uptick in competitiveness may mean more pressure for the reigning champs, but it could also be just what it takes for the conference to earn itself some long overdue respect on the national scene.

1. Stanford (Last season: 33-3, 17-1 Pac-12, lost to Georgia in Sweet 16)

Midway through the press conference the day before his team’s Sweet 16 matchup with Stanford last spring, Georgia head coach Andy Landers leaned into his microphone from his perch on a podium in the Spokane Arena media room and revealed that his Lady Bulldogs knew all about Cardinal forward Chiney Ogwumike.

The Bulldogs were just having some trouble figuring out the correct pronunciation of her last name. (It’s Oh-gwu-mi-kay.)

The nation will be on notice once again for Ogwumike, who took home Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors last spring after posting impressive averages of 22.4 points (on 59-percent shooting) and 12.9 rebounds per game. All three of those stats were conference bests. Unsurprisingly, she was a consensus first-team All-American at the national level.

But despite Ogwumike's dominating presence in the frontcourt, Stanford crashed and burned against Georgia, missing out on the Final Four for the first time in six seasons. (The Cardinal were the national runner up twice during that span.) This summer, Ogwumike led some team-wide soul searching. There had begun to be a sense that you could just put on the maroon and white jersey and Poof — the Final Four was within reach.

The Cardinal recalibrated their goals in the off-season and that mindset has been eliminated. Stanford’s expectation is not a Final Four; it’s a national championship, which would be the third in the program's history. And the Cardinal are committed to the blue-collar work ethic it will take for them to get there.

Ogwumike said that after the loss to Georgia, which snapped her team's lengthy Final Four streak, there was a palpable shift in the program’s vision. “The actual culture we want is national championships,” said Ogwumike. “We got everyone on the same page with that. Every practice, every weights session is geared toward a title.”

The Cardinal certainly have the pieces not only to repeat as conference champions but also to make another deep postseason run. That's not to say that the Cardinal haven't sustained some personnel losses: Stanford only lost sharpshooting forward Joslyn Tinkle to graduation, but guard Toni Kokenis was forced to retire this summer after a string of concussions, and forward Aly Beebe ended her career after a debilitating knee injury.

But Tara Vanderveer has Ogwumike, a Wooden All-American last season who returns to the watch lists this year as an early frontrunner for National Player of the Year. “You’ll see a more versatile Chiney this year,” said Vanderveer. “She plays the 3 for us, she handles the ball, and she’ll have more talent around her. She’ll get to rest a little bit more.”

Speaking of the talent surrounding Ogwumike, point guard Amber Orrange, who played brilliantly in last season's conference tournament final, is back, and Alex Greene, an untested junior, should also help out at guard, and give Orrange something she rarely had last season — the ability to rest. When the jet-quick guard came out during games last season, Vanderveer said Stanford’s production dropped almost immediately. “Amber worked hard,” said Vanderveer. “She can be one of the premier point guards in our league. Her work ethic is really special. She was cut from the World University Games team this summer, and that motivated her in a good way.”

Also back is redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef, who has a knack for coming up big when the lights are shining brightest. The 6-3 forward earned national attention last November for her defensive work on Brittney Griner as Stanford shocked Baylor at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu. That snapped the Lady Bears’ winning streak at 44. In the Pac-12 tournament final, it was Ruef who hit the decisive shot to unlock a knotted score with the clock winding down to beat UCLA.

Adding to the wealth of veteran talent Vanderveer, who needs just five wins to reach the 900 mark for her career --during his media day interview at Pac-12 headquarters, Oregon coach Paul Westhead made a quick comparison to Dean Smith -- has once again assembled a sterling recruiting class. Five freshmen join the team for ’13-14, including junior forward Bonnie Samuelson’s younger sister, Karlie, who could see playing time in the backcourt spelling junior starting point guard Amber Orrange and senior Sara James.

Kailee Johnson and Erica McCall were ranked No. 9 and No. 10, respectively, in the 2013 Full Court Fresh 50, and both could see minutes at the forward positions alongside Ogwumike. Vanderveer even offered that they could earn starting nods.

For all the Cardinal’s flair on the attack, they also bring a healthy mix of hard-working steel.The Cardinal ranked among the best defensive teams in the country last year, holding opponents to just 51.9 points per game (11th in D1). They ranked first in the country in limiting opponents' field-goal percentage (32 percent).

But the biggest change in this year's edition of the Cardinal is likely to be mindset. Ogwumike said she felt stifling pressure last season. Nneka, her older sister and former Cardinal great, had graduated, and Chiney felt the weight of the expectation to lead another Final Four run.

This year, she says, the yoke has lifted. “I feel no pressure,” Ogwumike said. “I’m developing into the player I hope to be. I’m a threat on both ends. I have perimeter skills, I have my outside shot.”

That augurs well for a team already loaded with both offensive and defensive talent.

No. 25 Gennifer Brandon chases down the loose ball during the 2013 NCAA Women's Final Four. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

2. Cal (32-4, 17-1, lost to Louisville in Final Four)

A little further north in the Bay Area, Cal, which tied Stanford for the regular-season conference title last year, is looking for a return trip to the Final Four. Last season's unprecedented success has instilled a new confidence for the Golden Bears.

“I think our standards are a lot higher as a program now,” said Bears associate head coach Charmin Smith. “The Final Four experience is very helpful. We tell recruits to come here, we can get another. The national exposure and recognition is a positive, but we know how hard that was. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s still Cal basketball. We still want to grind and be tough and athletic. Nothing’s going to change about our style or character.”

The style might be the same, but after last season's thrilling run to New Orleans, Lindsay Gottlieb brings back a very different team. The scary thing is, by the time March rolls around, this Golden Bears might be even better than last season’s team.

After Stanford's Ogwumike, the two other Pac-12 players named to the preseason Wade and Wooden Award watch lists — Brittany Boyd and Gennifer Brandon -- both belong to the Golden Bears.

When the game was one the line last season, there were few players in the country better at taking — and making — big shots than Layshia Clarendon. One of three seniors on last season’s Golden Bears Final Four team, the guard with the unmistakable blonde mohawk left some very big shoes to fill.

Enter junior point guard Brittany Boyd. The 5-7 point guard roomed with Clarendon, and the Cal coaching staff is raving about the way she has embraced the role of leadership with this young, and very talented, team. She’ll be expected to lead the Golden Bears’ dynamic, fast-paced attack this season — and she just might reel in some national awards along the way. During Cal’s China tour this past August, Boyd played at another level. When she’s ‘on,’ she’s a triple-double waiting to happen. She worked on her shooting all summer with Bears assistant coach Charmin Smith. If she can stretch defenses with a more consistent jumper, Cal could become a darkhorse contender .

The Bears made their name as a fast-paced bunch, but they also led the Pac-12 in rebounding margin, coming in ahead of second-placed Colorado by almost three boards per game (11.4 to 8.8). The Bears could take a bit of a hit in that department, at least in the early going, as they will be without standout senior forward Gennifer Brandon (12.3 points, 11.1 rebounds) for the first few weeks of the regular season. Brandon is recovering from August surgery to repair a right tibia stress fracture, but frosh post KC Waters could help fill the void while Brandon continues her rehabilitation. So will junior forward Reshanda Gray, who played for Team USA at the World University Games this summer.

Smith thinks senior guard Afure Jemerigbe, who had an excellent NCAA tournament (she was named to the Spokane Regional all-tournament team), could also have a special season.

In addition to Waters, freshmen wings Courtney Range and Mercedes Jefflo could both make immediate impacts.

Recreating a winning team chemistry with so many newcomers might be a challenge, but this summer's trip to Italy went a long way toward helping this team gel. Coach Lindsay Gottlieb could have taken an overseas trip in 2012, but she opted to wait a year. She knew the depth chart in ’13-14 would include six newcomers (four freshmen, two transfers), and she knew the added practices (10), games (three) and time spent navigating a foreign culture as a team would present a priceless building opportunity.

Team staff rate the experiment an unqulaified success: “It was everything you’d want your players to get out of the experience,” said Smith. And that could spell trouble for the Bears' opponents both in and out of the Pac-12 this year.

3. Colorado (25-6, 13-5, lost to Kansas in Round of 64)

All-everything guard Chucky Jeffery (13.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.2 steals) is gone, but the Buffaloes return a host of talent — including four starters — from a team that cracked the NCAA tournament last March.

Like Cal, Buffaloes head coach Linda Lappe opted to take an overseas trip this summer instead of the year before. “Losing Chucky and having a new point guard made it a better time to go abroad,” said Lappe, who played for Colorado from 1998-2003. “We were able to figure out our deficiencies through 10 practices. We feel like we’re much further along than we were last year at this time.”

How to replace Jeffery? Lappe isn’t looking at things that way. “One player won’t replace Jeffery,” she said.

“[Senior] Brittany Wilson started at point guard during her freshman year," said Lappe of the vacancy Jeffery leaves at the point. "she backed up Chucky these past two seasons. She’ll continue to get better as she gets more confidence.”

Among other returning talent is Arielle Roberson, one of a number of very talented sophomores in the conference. The 6-2 forward was forced to take a medical redshirt her freshman year at Boulder (’11-12) after she suffered a torn left labrum. She made the most of that year, watching and learning at a rapid rate. She’s carried that mentality with her.

“You can always tell when she’s in a drill,” said Lappe. “It’s night and day, [in terms of] our sense of urgency, when she’s in.”

Roberson averaged 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds in ’12-13 and should be expected to make a concerted jump in production with a year under her belt.

Junior Jen Reese, who averaged 8.4 points and 4.9 rebounds as a key substitute a season ago, could join Roberson in the starting lineup.

The Wilson twins (seniors Ashley and Brittany) should help anchor the backcourt, and junior Lexy Kresl can shoot it from deep.

Lappe reeled in a strong recruiting class for her fourth season in charge. Forwards Haley Smith, Zoe Beard-Fails and Brianna Watts give the frontcourt a boost. Watts thrived during the team’s summer trip to Italy, during which the Buffaloes played four games.

The 6-0 Smith is a matchup nightmare, with an inside-out game that will translate very well at the collegiate level. Lappe rarely has to correct mistakes. “She’s the furthest ahead [among the freshmen] at this time,” said Lappe. “She’s confident and smart — she picks things up quickly. The best thing about her is I don’t notice her. That’s pretty good for a freshman.”

4. Washington (21-12, 11-7, lost to Pacific in NIT second round)

After Kevin McGuff left for the Ohio State job this spring, Washington was without a head coach. But that didn't stop this team from looking ahead to the coming season. To prepare for whatever awaited them, the Huskies hit the gym. They knew they were poised for a breakout season, and they wanted to be focused when McGuff’s successor was announced.

Mike Neighbors, the Huskies' associate head coach for the past two seasons, ultimately got the job, which came as a welcome relief to the players. “We were all hoping it would be Neighbors as head coach,” said star junior point guard Jazmine Davis. “That’d be the one person that could keep it all together, keep this momentum going.”

Davis is referring to the past two seasons, during each of which Washington has won at least 20 games.

Even with the loss of guard Kristi Kingma (13.5 points, a team-best 86 three-pointers), the Huskies should beef up their output of 65.3 points per game, and Davis will be critical to that effort. In just two seasons, Davis has become the program’s all-time leading scorer, aided by her 19.3 points per game in ’12-13. The 5-7 junior guard is a two-time All-Pac 12 first-team selection, and Neighbors said that this season, she’ll move off the ball in an attempt to get her more looks.

More firepower is likely to come from freshman guard Kelsey Plum (No. 36 in the 2013 Full Court Fresh 50 rankings), a McDonald’s and WBCA All-American who enters the fold this season. This summer, Plum played for gold-medal winning USA Basketball U-19 team at the FIBA U-19 World Championships, posting 5.6 points in just 12.9 minutes per game. After the competition ended, Plum flew straight from Lithuania to Seattle. Minutes after she’d landed and passed through customs, she was out on the court, playing one-on-one with Davis.

“(Plum) is going to be right at Jaz’s level of being ready to play, and Jaz was the most ready freshman I’ve ever coached,” said Neighbors. That’s a guard tandem that could take the nation by storm.

Add in sophomore Talia Walton, who averaged just under two three-pointers a game last season (the Huskies hit just under eight per game as a team) and senior Mercedes Wetmore, whose 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio was tops in the conference. There were times this summer when Walton was unguardable, said Neighbors. Wetmore led the conference in minutes played last season, and even played some softball for Washington’s team this spring. Sophomore forward Aminah Williams (9.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals) is another piece in a very talented young core of U-Dub players.

Couple the Huskies' scoring ability with their ability to force teams into mistakes — their turnover margin was a gaudy +5.36 in ’12-13 — and this team could make some serious noise this season.

5. UCLA (26-8, 14-4, lost to Oklahoma in Round of 32)

UCLA gave the Cardinal all they could handle in the conference tournament last year and hopes were high after last season's trip to the NCAA tournament. Those hopes were dented, however, by the news in recent weeks that junior forward Kacy Swain and sophomore guard Kari Korver will both miss the 2013-14 season due to injury. Swain underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Korver, who averaged 4.7 points as a freshman and ranked third in the Pac-12 in three-point percentage (36 percent), suffered tears of the ACL and lateral meniscus tear in her right knee. The loss of Swain, in particular, puts even more of a burden on the frontcourt, which was already facing the daunting task of replace departed senior forwards Markel Walker, Alyssia Brewer and Jasmine Dixon.

When asked about the injuries, and if they might detract from potential success this season, Close was succinct. “Performance equals potential minus interferences,” said Close, who is now in her third year at the helm of the Bruins. “I thought we’d press more and extend our defense, but now because of the depth issue, we’ll have to change it a bit. But our players have added new pieces to their games. We’re excited about the players and the pieces that we do have.”

Close has had plenty of experience in dealing with injuries, which left her with a rotation that at times dipped to just seven players last year. In the mid-nineties, while an assistant on the staff of former Bruins coach Kathy Olivier, Close had the opportunity to spend some time with the Wizard, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden. One Wooden mantra she’s often invoked over the years: You have to adapt, and you have to change, but if you’re a true competitor you’ll find a way to win. “That’s what’s fun about basketball,” said Close.

The Bruins will share the ball (16.4 assists per game last season) and hunker down on defense (9.9 steals). Senior forward Atonye Nyingifa, who has struggled with injury since coming to Westwood in ’08, is the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder at 11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds, respectively. Close says Nyingifa has one of the highest basketball IQs she’s ever seen in a player.

Look for sophomore guard Nirra Fields to have a very strong season, after notching 7.8 points in her freshman campaign.

Still, t make the necessary adjustments, Close will need some immediate contributions from her newcomers. Dominique Williams, one of five St. Mary’s (Ariz.) High seniors to make the jump to Division 1 basketball this summer, should provide some steady play at the point guard position for the Bruins. Close said that Williams is likely to start, was will 6-3 center Luiana Livulo, a junior college transfer who hails from Lisbon, Portugal. Six-foot-nine freshman post Savanna Trapp, who set a Minnesota prep record for blocked shots with 643, will likely redshirt this season, but Paulina Hersler, a versatile 6-2 forward from Sweden signed late this past spring, could be called upon to help out when she joins the team in January. Hersler averaged a competition-best 20.9 points at the 2012 U-18 European Championships.

And if all else fails, there's always next season. Close’s 2014 recruiting class contains five players ranked in the Full Court Fresh 50's top 30, and is widely regarded as the best in the country.

Cassie Harberts, No. 11, led the Trojans with 18 points and 8.2 rebounds last season (Photo by Dan Avila/USC Sports Information)

6. USC (11-20, 7-11)

How best to describe the mentality first-year head coach, and forme USC great, Cynthia Cooper has brought to USC?

“Score, score, score!” said senior forward Cassie Harberts during her media day interview.

In Harberts (18.0 ppg, 8.2 rbg), a Wooden watch-lister andone of the nation's best players, and Ariya Crook (13.4 ppg), USC returns two of the Pac-12’s top scorers. Both factor heavily into Cooper’s vision for the Women of Troy. “I like to make basketball exciting to play and to watch,” Cooper said. “In practice, we do a lot of running with the ball. I like to be efficient in the halfcourt, and I want to get something out of our shot attempts, but you can expect an exciting style of basketball.”

Cooper’s infectious enthusiasm and name recognition are already paying dividends, motivating her current players to aspire to a higher level of play. Last season, as the head coach at Texas Southern (located in Houston), Cooper transformed a 5-26 team in ’11-12 into a 20-12 unit that cracked the NIT. There’s a feeling that Cooper could help USC vault into the realm of top teams this season. “To have one of the best players to ever play on the court with you is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Harberts said. (There's been a pay-off on the recruiting trail as well: Earlier this month, Cooper reeled in a commitment from McKenzie Calvert, a highly-touted 2014 shooting guard from Texas.)

The Women of Troy return all but one player from last season, and with four seniors and nine upper classmen on the roster, there is a plenty of veteran leadership alongside Harberts.  The frontcourt will be boosted by the addition of Kaneisha Horn, a 6-2 junior who transferred in August from Alabama and will be eligible to play immediately. Horn, who made 28 starts for the Crimson Tide last season, notched four double-doubles in 31 games. “She adds a new dynamic to our program,” said Cooper. “She’s a ‘4’ who we can also put at the 2, 3 and 5. We’ll find out where she fits best, but she is exciting to watch.”

In the backcourt, sophomore guard Brianna Barrett led the team in assists last season with 3.1 per game, and getting sophomoreguard Jordan Adams back from injury will be a huge boon. Adams was a 2012 McDonald’s All-American, and started the first seven games for the Trojans last season. “She’ll have a breakout year,” said Cooper. “She’s in shape, and she’s really paying attention to her nutrition and conditioning.”

The biggest challenge facing Cooper if she hopes to move USC into the upper eschalon of Pac-12 teams won't be scoring, so much as it will be preventing opponents from doing the same. USC finished 11th in the conference last season in points allowed and struggled to keep teams from shooting high percentages. For Cooper and the Women of Troy to succeed, they will have to put as much emphasis on their defense as they do on installing an exciting and enteritaining offense.

7. Oregon State (10-21, 4-14)

Head coach Scott Rueck, an OSU alum, can count upon a very strong and youthful cast (nine of the 11 players on this season’s roster are underclassmen) as the Beavers look to continue climbing the ranks of the Pac-12. Five freshmen saw significant minutes last season, and Rueck adds a very strong recruiting class to a team that also returns four starters. “We’re coming off a year that wasn’t what we’d hoped, but we learned our lessons,” said Rueck. “Half of our minutes played and points scored came from freshmen. We didn’t have a real post presence, but now we have those components.”

The Beavers defend well, and Rueck’s roster is filled with players capable of playing an engaging, up-tempo pace at both ends. Last season, OSU’s field goal percentage defense and blocks ranked 16th and 11th in the nation, respectively.

Among the key returnees is sophomore guard Jamie Weisner, who is coming off an excellent performance in the FIBA U-19 World Championships, where she averaged 17 points per game, twice eclipsing 30, and was named to the All-Tournament Team. Weisner burst onto the Pac-12 scene as a freshman, averaging 12.5 points a game and 5.9 rebounds (14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in conference play.) She torched teams from deep, hitting 37% of her threes, second-best in the conference.

Junior Ali Gibson started all 31 games last season, averaging 9.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals. Six-foot-six sophomore Ruth Hamblin spent her summer with the Canadian national team, and Rueck sees a bigger role for her for the Beavers this year. “She should be jumping up in points, and she’ll be a focal point of our offense,” said Rueck. “You have to pay attention to her on every possession.”

Among the incoming freshmen, 6-3 post Breanna Brown, who signed late after originally committing to Virginia Tech, should provide depth in the frontcourt, an area in which the Beavers struggled in ’12-13. Brown excelled at perennial power Bishop O’Dowd (Calif.) High. Guard Sydney Wiese, a Top-100 recruit who scored over 2,000 points in high school, will be expected to lend some scoring punch.

Meanwhile, the Canadian pipeline to Corvallis keeps flowing with the arrival of forward Kolbie Orum, who is the fifth all-time leading scorer in British Columbia prep history. In a word, Orum is “phenomenal,” said Rueck. “You know me and freshmen,” Rueck said. “We’re basketball players. I expect you to come in and contribute right away.”

Some might say Oregon State is still a year away from making a run to the NCAA tournament, but never count out a team with this much firepower on hand.

8. Utah (23-14, 8-10, lost to Drexel in NIT final)

That loss in the NIT championship game stings, but hopes were high in Salt Lake City ahead of ths season. Head coach Anthony Levrets returned his top two scorers, and the Utes had every reason to believe they could make a serious run in the NCAA tournament this year.

That task became more difficult when 6-3 forward Taryn Wicijowski, a redshirt senior who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2012-13, was ruled out for the season after suffering an ACL tear. Then Paige Crozon, a rangy 6-1 sophomore who made 10 starts last season before suffering a severe concussion, couldn’t make a full recovery and will also miss the 2013-14 season.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Levrets, “but (dealing with the injuries) has been hard for me. But it’s part of our game, and part of our lives. You just have to do the best you can.”

That means even more will be demanded of senior Michelle Plouffe, a 6-4 senior forward who has been named an AP honorable mention All-America for two seasons running. Plouffe, who played for Canada at the London Olympics (there are four Canadians on the Utah roster), averaged 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Utes while hitting 58 three-pointer last season. “We have a special player [in Plouffe],” said Levrets, “and rarely is she your most improved player. But that’s what’s happened from last year to this one. With her skill set, we can play her anywhere on the court.”

Also back is Danielle Rodriguez, who started 35 games at point guard as a freshman and has earned raves for her work during the offseason. “She’s got a great basketball IQ, and she’s one of our most improved kids,” said Levrets. “She’ll play some great pick-and-roll with Plouffe. We expect her to have a great sophomore year.”

Five freshmen are on the roster, and they will be expected to help fill the gap in production in the wake of the loss of Wicijowski. Fellow Canadian and incoming freshman Emily Potter, a 6-5 forward, “can really play,” Levrets said.  Five-foot-ten forward Malia Nawahine was Utah's 12-13 Gatorade Player of the Year, and joins her sister Valerie, a sophomore transfer from BYU. “It’s a really good [freshman] group,” said Levrets. “I like this team, and I think we have the chance to be good.”

9. Washington State (11-20, 6-12)

This summer, Washington State took a tour of Austria and the Czech Republic, playing in hostile environments against teams littered with players in mid-season shape. They won all their games, averaging upwards of 80 points and gaining immeasurable confidence in the process. As with the other conference teams that got a jumpstart through foreign play this summer, that experiencecould go a long ways this season.

Anchoring this seasoned group is Sage Romberg (6.1 points, 4.4 rebounds), a four-year starter at forward. Also back and showing promise is 6-0 sophomore forward Mariah Cooks, who scored in double figures in three of the Cougars’ games during their August European tour. Cooks has a lot of Charles Barkley in her game, says Daugherty.

Add that to Lia Galdeira, who led the conference in steals last season (2.8 per game) as a freshman and received an invitation to try out for the USA U-19 team this summer. “It was a great experience for Lia to try out for the U-19s,” said head coach June Daugherty. “She came back with her eyes wide open. She realized she can’t just count on her athleticism if she wants to continue to excel. There’s specific things she’s working on; she’s more motivated than she’s ever been.”

Galdeira’s 14.8 points per game was tops among Division 1 freshmen last season, and her 5.2 rebounds also led the Cougs. She’ll help recreate a strong backcourt alongside 5-9 junior Tia Presley (13.3 points), who returns from a knee injury that cut her ’12-13 season short at 18 games.

Sophomore Dawnyelle Awa started the last 13 games last spring, and led the team with 68 assists. “Dawny is one of the best passers in the game of basketball,” said Daugherty.

The lone freshman on the roster is 6-3 post Ivana Kmetovska, who excelled for Macedonia at the U18 European Championships in summer 2012. Kmetovska averaged 11.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists during the competition, and should make a contribution this season.

Wazzou had an excellent start to the 2012-13 season, beating Gonzaga on the road and Ohio State at home. But with six freshmen on the roster last year, growing pains proved insurmountable, and troubles mounted when key defender Tia Presley went out with a season-ending knee injury. The Cougars faded late in the season, losing six of their last seven games.  “We didn’t like the way we finished,” said Daugherty.

They want that to change this time around. During the Cougars’ Midnight Madness (ZZUMania) on Oct. 11, Daugherty promised a postseason appearance. “We’re getting dangerously close, and we’re excited about it,” said Daugherty. “We have the guard play, the athleticism, the depth and the leadership to make the step to be in the [Pac-12] top 5 this year.”

10. Arizona State (13-18, 5-13)

Head coach Charlie Turner Thorne described last season as a baptism by fire for the Sun Devils. With Thorne back at the helm after taking the ’11-12 season off, there were definite growing pains.

This year, however, “We’re getting our commitment to discipline back,” said Thorne.

Thorne’s coaching philosoph  is steeped in defensive intensity and pressure. “We deny passes, take things away, don’t allow you to do the things you want,” said Thorne.

Key to the execution of that defense-driven game plan is  talented junior guard Promise Amukamara, one four starters returning this season. The 5-8 junior from Glendale, Ariz. is an excellent shooter and steady defender — her 1.9 steals per game helped earn conference honorable all-defensive honors.

Senior guard Deja Mann returns from a knee injury that kept her out all last season, and sophomore transfer Katie Hempen (Southern Illinois) is expected to provide an adept shooting touch from the perimeter. “Deja is a coach on the floor,” said Thorne. “She became even more of a student of the game during her time away. We’ll play her at all the guard spots. With her and Katie, we’ll have two prolific shooters — the two best on our team.”

Kelsey Moos, a 6-0 freshman wing from Edwall, Wash. should add to the depth as well as provide perimeter scoring. She’s part of a three-person incoming class that includes center Quinn Dornstaudter, who was named to Canada’s team for the U-19 World Championships in Lithuania this summer, where she averaged a solid 4.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Forward Sophie Brunner rounds out the newcomers.

“We’ve recruited kids that have won — and only won,” said Thorne. “We need them to come in and have an impact this year. Kids that win understand what it takes. They understand defense is needed to win.”

11. Arizona (12-18, 4-14)

Niya Butts recruited well, bringing in highly-rated forward LaBrittney Jones (Cedar Hill, Texas). One of four freshmen on this team, Jones has a ways to go yet on the offensive end, but she’s a high-energy player.

That should mesh perfectly with Butts’s vision for the team this season. The Wildcats will look to use their quickness and athleticism to best opponents, Butts told Arizona’s official site on media day.

The Cats' strength is in their backcourt. Replacing Davellyn White (16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.6 steals) will be a burden, but Butts returns a very good core of three seniors — all starters. Kama Griffitts is the top returning scorer at 10.7 points per game. She knocks down threes (60 last season) and forces steals (2.0) and fits Butts' sytem to a T.

Griffitts should partner with fellow senior Carrissa Crutchfield (6.3 points, 2.8 assists) in the backcourt. “We have good guard play,” said Butts. “They’ll have to be strong, and they’ll be catalysts on both sides of the ball.”

Junior Candice Warthen returns from injury that kept her out all of last season. The 5-5 guard averaged 11.7 points during the 2011-12 season, and is excellent off the dribble. She should help the Wildcats push the ball offensively.

The major weakness is in the post. The Wildcats don't field a single player over 6-2. Six-foot-one post Alli Gloyd was the team’s top returning rebounder at 6.0 boards per game, but she suffered a torn ACL in her right knee in a recent scrimmage and will miss the season. So the question here will be whether the guards can get it done, more or less on their own steam.

No. 14 Jillian Alleyne averaged a double-double last season for the Ducks. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics)

12. Oregon (4-27, 2-16)

The Ducks were decimated by injury a season ago. At times, head coach Paul Westhead had just six players to choose from — and never really more than seven.

Is there reason to expect a boost this season? Westhead thinks so.  “Every year is new life,” Westhead said. “Whatever team you had before, it doesn’t matter. Once you start again, it’s all brand new.”

Despite the burden of all the attrition, the Ducks never quit on him last year, something the fifth-year Ducks head coach found quite telling. “I compliment my players,” Westhead said. “They hung in. We’d lose a weekend of games (last season), come back, and it’d be the first practice day of the week and they’d be ready to go.”

Oregon returns all but one player (sophomore guard Devyn Galland transferred to Saint Mary’s) on a roster that features plenty of young talent, including sophomore Jillian Alleyne, who earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and honorable mention All-Pac 12 honors last year after averaging a double-double (13.0 points, 11.9 rebounds.

Senior guard Ariel Thomas averaged 10.6 points last year, and Danielle Love, a 6-2 fourth-year forward, was one of just two Ducks to start all 31 games last season. (Junior guard Jordan Loera was the other.)

On the other hand, Lexi Petersen and Laura Stanulis played just six games between them last season, but both will be counted upon to contribute in this year's starting lineup. Stanulis, a point guard, is one of four seniors on this team.

Also back will be 6-1 forward Liz Brenner started 18 games for the Ducks and averaged 7.9 points and 7.4 rebounds after joining the basketball team in midseason. Westhead said it usually takes Brenner, a junior who plays for the Ducks volleyball team, a game or two to really get in the swing of the season. After that, her innate feel for the game kicks in. “She doesn’t pick up a basketball from March to December,” Westhead said, “but I wouldn’t trade her.”

Newcomers include freshman guard Chrishae Roe, a top-100 recruit, and Katelyn Loper, a 5-11 junior guard who becomes eligible this season after transferring from Hofstra. If Loper is known for one thing, said Westhead, it’s shooting. She will combine with a number of wings that should ease some of the pressure off of Alleyne in the post.