2014 PAC-12 Tournament Preview: A power conference on the rise

March 4, 2014 - 11:39am
The Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday in Seattle with Stanford still the heavy favorite but plenty of rising competitors in the thick of the fray. (Logo courtesy Pac-12)

The Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday in Seattle with Stanford still the heavy favorite but plenty of rising competitors in the thick of the fray. (Logo courtesy Pac-12)

When the 2014 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday at Key Arena in Seattle, two things will be clear beyond cavil:

Stanford is the No. 1 seed and the favorite. California is the No. 2 seed and the main challenger.

That’s where the similarities between the 2013 Pac-12 Women’s Tournament and this year’s version begin and end.

The Bay Area axis of power remains intact, but the rest of the league is quite different in 2014. This will create new storylines and tension points in Seattle, as the Pac-12 returns to Key Arena for its four-day hoops festival. Sunday’s championship game figures to have at least one Bay Area team if not two, but the lead-up to the final Pac-12 game of the season (barring an NCAA tournament reunion) should acquire a set of decidedly different dimensions.


Let’s start with the two biggest shifts in the conference relative to last season. Oregon State was a 10 seed in the 2013 Pac-12 Tournament, but the Beavers have a No. 3 seed and a first-round bye this time around. Coach Scott Rueck has Oregon State on the cusp of the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. What helps the Beavers here is that their first-round bye means they don’t have to play an RPI-dragging No. 12 seed in the first round. They’ll likely play a decent team (No. 6 seed Stanford-slaying Washington, playing in its home city of Seattle) in Friday’s quarterfinals. Even if Oregon State loses that game, its resume won’t take an overly significant hit.

If it’s hard for visitors to win in Corvallis in men’s basketball, it’s not that much different for the women, who have dropped only one home game all season. Rueck has made a name for himself in the coaching profession this season, and his team heads to Seattle riding a nine-game winning streak. It will be fascinating to see what the Beavers can do in the semifinals against Cal if they’re able to get that far. A Stanford-Cal final would be a five-star matchup, but the most intriguing potential pairing could be an Oregon State-Cal semifinal. If Washington does defeat Utah in the first round (the 6-11 game on Thursday), a quarterfinal between the Huskies and Oregon State should prove to be compelling as well.

The other substantial turnaround in the Pac when compared to 2013 is the one engineered by Charli Turner Thorne at Arizona State. Yes, it’s true that the Sun Devils have been a regular NCAA Tournament team for most of the past decade, but they’ve missed the field of 64 in each of the past two seasons. This season needed to restore the high standards the Sun Devils expect to live up to – a ninth-place finish in 2013 left a bitter taste that had to be expunged. Sure enough, a proven coach has been able to whip her team into shape. The Sun Devils will be dancing in this year's NCAA tournament, and they want to bolster their seeding as much as possible over the coming weekend. The Sun Devils, the No. 4 seed in this tournament, will also enjoy a first-round bye and are hoping that they, like Oregon State, can get a shot at a Bay Area team in the semis on Saturday. Arizona State lost twice to Stanford during the regular season by an average of 25 points per game. The Devils hope that in a third meeting, they can at least do what Colorado did in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinals -- remain competitive by the time the under-12-minute media timeout arrives in the second half.

All preliminary rounds of this year's tournament will be aired on the Pac-12 Network, with ESPN broadcasting the final (see schedule below), making it easier than ever to follow a tournament that has the ingredients for some interesting plot twists. Let's take a closer look at the pairings.

First Round -- Thursday, March 6

Game One: No. 9 Colorado (16-13, 6-12) v. No. 8 UCLA (13-17, 7-11) -- 12 Noon PST/3 p.m. EST (P12N)

On the flip side of the stories authored by Oregon State and Arizona State lie a couple of grim realities. UCLA and Colorado were the two non-Bay Area schools that gained first-round byes and made deep runs in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament. The past year has not been kind to either the Buffaloes or Bruins, each of whom started the season in the national rankings before things began to unravel. Seeded eighth and ninth, respectively, must now play in the first round, with Stanford awaiting the winner in the quarterfinals, making the first of 11 games in Seattle a desperate, even grim, fight for survival.

Colorado is paced by Arielle Roberson, sister of former Colorado men’s basketball star Andre Roberson. Arielle Roberson averages 12.4 points and eight rebounds per game, giving this team a measure of power and toughness near the rim. Teammate Jen Reese averages 12 points and 5.8 rebounds, adding to Colorado’s frontcourt. In the backcourt, Brittany Wilson averages 10.7 points per game, but she hits only 27.6 percent of her threes, which makes the Buffaloes easier to guard on the perimeter.

The injury bug bit hard and early this season, but UCLA still has three dynamic players. Atonye Nyingifa averages 18.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game. Nirra Fields averages 17.7, 6.3, and 2.1 in those same three statistical categories. Thea Lemberger averages 15 points and four assists per contest. So why is this team eighth in the league? The rest of the roster hasn’t been able to do much. No other Bruin averages more than 6.4 points. This team rebounds really well, but that’s part of the problem – they are always chasing down missed shots and can’t often put them back in the bucket.

Game Two: No. 12 Arizona (5-24, 1-17) v. No. 5 USC (18-12, 11-7) -- 2:30 p.m. PST/5:30 p.m. EST (P12N)

Up next comes the 5-12 game. In the NCAA tournament, with its 16 seeds, this can often be the scene of a surprise, but in a conference tournament like the Pac-12, it’s generally not, since the 12 seed is the last-place team the league. No. 12 Arizona has only one double-figure scorer, Candice Warthen (11.1 ppg). The three backcourt players who get the most minutes – Warthen, Kama Griffitts (a tweener guard-forward), and Carissa Crutchfield – all shoot below 37 percent from the field.

USC has come a long way this season under first-year head coach Cynthia Cooper. On a roll as the conference season began, the Women of Troy gradually dropped in the league due to an inability to close games out. But they can compete with the best of them, going up 19 on Stanford and pushing the Cardinal to the brink of defeat late last month, before letting up on the pedal and falling 59-64. No. 2 Cal also knows that this is an underdog that can bite after suffering a 70-77 loss to USC in Berkeley.

The Trojans have a strong one-two combination in All-Pac-12 first-teamer Cassie Harberts (16.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Ariya Crook (15.8 ppg). Like any fifth seed in a 5-12 conference tournament matchup, USC will want to turn to its bench as much as possible in this game, pacing the starters for a possible two-day run through the fourth and first seeds (Arizona State and Stanford), and that’s not even including a possible final on Sunday. This is a game for the Trojans to “get through,” and nothing more.

Game Three: No. 10 Oregon (15-14, 6-12) v. No. 7 Washington State (15-15, 9-9) -- 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST (P12N)

The first night session of the Pac-12 Tournament, appropriately enough, features a Pacific Northwest clash that should sell some extra tickets at Key Arena. Oregon still lingers in the bottom tier of the conference and is hoping to experience the same kind of revival that has swept through Oregon State’s program. The Ducks are led by the machine-like Jillian Alleyne, a dynamic sophomore who puts up Kevin Love-type numbers. (The reference is even more appropriate when one recalls that Love grew up in the state of Oregon.) Alleyne averages – get this – 21.6 points and 15.7 rebounds per game. She’s the centerpiece around which this program will be built over the next two years. Chrishae Rowe plays second fiddle to Alleyne… and she averages 21.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Oregon, as you can see, doesn’t lack scoring production. Rather, the reason this team still isn’t where it needs to be is because it can’t defend anyone. The Ducks are last or close to last in the Pac-12 in both field-goal percentage defense categories. They’re one of the 25 worst defensive teams in the country in terms of overall field-goal percentage defense.

Washington State is led by Tia Presley (18.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Lia Galdeira (17.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg). Head coach June Daugherty – who previously coached at the University of Washington – has molded the Cougars into a resilient team that plays better than any of its stats would suggest. Washington State pushed Stanford earlier this season in Pullman, and it pushed Cal into overtime on Feb. 27 in Berkeley before falling short against the Golden Bears.

Game Four: No. 11 Utah (11-18, 4-14) v. No. 6 Washington (17-12, 10-8) -- 8:30 p.m. PST/11:3 p.m. EST (P12N)

Anyone who regularly follows women’s college basketball knows that while records determine the seeds, postseason events are scheduled and arranged with ticket sales in mind. Therefore, it should not be surprising to see Washington playing the late game on first-round Thursday for the second straight year in Seattle.

Yet, there’s something different about this bracket, if you recall the way last year’s tournament was scheduled. In 2013, Washington was a 5-seed, in the top half of the bracket. This year, Washington is a 6-seed, in the bottom half. Yet, in order to sell tickets, the Huskies remain in the second installment of the night session. This will have a ripple effect on the tournament that will be discussed even more as we go along.

No. 11 Utah was in the 6-11 game last year… but that time as the 6 seed. The Utes experienced a hard fall in the Pac this season. Michelle Plouffe, who struggled mightily from the field when Utah was eliminated by UCLA in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, will need to get on a hot streak and stay that way if Utah is going to create some bracket mischief in Seattle. She averages 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.

Washington is the one Pac-12 team that took down Stanford over the course of the 18-game regular season. The Cardinal had no answer for the freshman firepower of Kelsey Plum, who torched the Trees for 23 points on 5-of-12 shooting, 3-of-5 from three-point range. Plum averages 20.9 points per game and gets enough help from Jazmine Davis (19.2 ppg, 3.2 assists per game) to breathe freely. Davis enables Plum to operate in space, without getting double-teamed on every possession.

Quarterfinals -- Friday, March 7

Game Five: 8/9 winner (UCLA/Colorado) v. No. 1 Stanford (28-2, 17-1) -- 12 Noon PST/3 p.m. EST (P12N)

How will this tournament be won or lost? The focus will, as always, gravitate to Stanford, the enduring heavyweight on the West Coast, so let’s use this opportunity to talk about the colossus of the league.

The positives are readily apparent: Repeat Pac-12 Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike is one of the premiere posts in the country. She averages a double-double of 27 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. This season, she has added floor leadership to her already impressive repertoire, inspiring confidence and poise in this relatively young Cardinal squad that has found itself in difficulty this season more often than the veterans have become accustomed to. Mikaela Ruef is a strong second rebounder in support of Ogwumike, and Amber Orrange is a tough-as-nails floor leader who provides superb perimeter defense as well as the Cardinal's only other double-digit scoring option at 10.1 points per game.

But as Hall-of-Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer forthrightly admitted when asked about her team's struggles and stumbles in conference play this season (and it's high praise for Stanford and its storied tradition to call a single conference loss in 28-2 overall season a struggle or a stumble), the cause of the problem stems both from the overall qualitative improvement across this league and from the fact that this just isn't the overwhelmingly dominant Stanford squad of yore.

To begin with, the fact that no one else on the Stanford roster averages at least 11 points should concern VanDerveer and her seasoned coaching staff. But the problems lie deeper than that. The Cardinal won last year’s Pac-12 Tournament in Seattle, but not without a street fight from UCLA in the final and a 28-minute battle against Colorado in the semi. Every season in the post-Candice Wiggins era, Stanford’s postseason fate has hinged on its performance from the three-point line. The Ogwumike sisters have made the Cardinal extremely hard to handle in the paint, but that very presence in the low post has made it imperative for Stanford to find a consistent knockdown shooter.

In the 2013 Pac-12 Tournament, Stanford hit just one triple in its semifinal win over Colorado; the Cardinal needed and got a terrible shooting night from the Buffaloes in order to pull away down the stretch in a physical and taxing game. In the championship game against UCLA the following evening, Stanford went 4-of-16 from three-point range, which enabled the Bruins to smother Chiney Ogwumike with impunity. Stanford averaged only 56 points per game in those two contests (61 against Colorado, 51 against UCLA), reinforcing the reality that when perimeter shots don’t drop, this offense becomes pedestrian, even with an elite low-post force.

This lack of three-point shooting accuracy caught up with Stanford in the 2013 postseason when the Cardinal went 5-of-18 from long distance and lost to Georgia in the Sweet 16. Opponents are acutely aware of the need to force the Cardinal to take perimeter shots, and the shortage of consistent firepower from beyond the arc is even more conspicuous this season than last. Bonnie Samuelson (.411 from three-point range), her little sister freshman Karlie Samuelson (.365 3FG) and fellow frosh Lili Thompson (.425 3FG) have been the primary outside options this year, with junior forward Taylor Greenfield (.400 3FG) chipping in on occasion. But while those percentages sound great, the reality is that Thompson and Greenfield don't take that many longball attempts and the Samuelson sisters can be streaky. If any of the four were all that consistent from long range, there would be at least one more double-digit scorer showing up in the Stanford cumulative box score.

If VanDerveer can’t find a reliable sharpshooter in the coming weeks, forget about the Final Four, as Washington amply demonstrated, Stanford could lose its stranglehold on the Pac-12 Tournament title. That said, discipline, confidence and coaching count for a lot, not just at this stage, but throughout the postseason. And neither UCLA nor Colorado is likely to be the team to exploit the warts this year. Call this game a warm-up.

Game Six: 5/12 winner (USC/Arizona) vs. No. 4 Arizona State (22-8, 11-7) --2:30 p.m. PST/5:30 p.m. EST (P12N)

As you’d expect, the two quarterfinals in any tournament that promise an abundance of intrigue are the 4-5 and 3-6 quarterfinals. This tournament should be no exception. Arizona State should enjoy the first-round bye because this team really wobbled down the stretch, losing five of its last seven games after starting 9-2 in the league. The Sun Devils use a deeper rotation than most teams in the conference. Deja Mann is the leading scorer at 11 points per game; six teammates average at least seven points per contest, but no one else consistently puts up double digits. Scoring balance can at times be a strong point, but the lack of firepower has definitely a weakness over the past three weeks. ASU scored 49 points or fewer in three of its late-season losses, and it didn’t even score more than 63 points in three of its other contests (two of them being wins over weaker opponents in the league, Colorado and Utah).

Will Arizona State be physically and mentally refreshed as a result of the bye? We’ll see if the Sun Devils’ offense is cohesive and fluid in this game.

Game Seven: 7/10 winner (Washington State/Oregon) vs. No. 2 California (21-8, 13-5)

9:05 p.m. EST (Pac-12 Network)

Interestingly enough, California, replaced Stanford as the Pac-12’s and the Bay Area’s representative in last year’s Final Four, faces a problem that’s not unlike that of its neighbor and rival.

The Golden Bears no longer have Talia Caldwell, a core member of their 2013 squad, but Reshanda Gray has made that fact largely irrelevant, averaging 17.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Gray’s frontcourt prowess is complemented by the relentless perimeter defense of Brittany Boyd and Afure Jemerigbe, who make it very hard to score on California. The Bears didn’t make themselves into a national title contender by taking shortcuts. This team’s commitment to defense is exactly why it has become a factor in the Pac-12 under head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

However, if there’s a glaring weakness on this team, it’s the shortage of three-point shooting. Boyd hits just 24.6 percent of her threes, while Jamerigbe isn’t much better at 28.4. Gennifer Brandon, a core contributor on last year’s team, helps Gray on the boards, so it’s true that when California misses threes, it can chase them on the glass. Nevertheless, the Golden Bears become easier to defend in their initial halfcourt sets when opponents know that the three-point shot just isn’t a reliable weapon. Cal hit went 0-for-9 from downtown on its own home floor against Washington State on Feb. 27, and wound up battling to survive through extra minutes (And Cal's lack of a long game freed up WSU defenders to bear down on the front court, dropping Cal's overall shooting percentage to just 34.8 percent from the field.)  If the Golden Bears do play the Cougars once again, they will have to knock down at least a few more from the perimeter.

Game Eight: 6/11 winner (Washington/Utah) vs. No. 3 Oregon State (21-9, 13-5) -- 8:30 p.m. PST/11:30 p.m. EST (P12N)

The Beavers will be the last team to take the court in Seattle Friday. They hope they can stick around for at least one day and get a shot at a semifinal showdown against Cal, unless the Bears are bumped out by Washington State.

Oregon State has lost only once since Jan. 20. Impressed? This fact might be even more remarkable: The Beavers haven’t won a game by a single-digit margin since Jan. 24 against Washington (75-68). This team hasn’t just won; it has won authoritatively. In its lone loss since Jan. 20 (Jan. 31 at Arizona State), the Beavers led most of the way before allowing an advantage to slip away in the final few minutes. Beating Washington in Seattle would do much to cement the notion that this team is for real. A loss might give rise to the view – impoverished or not – that the Beavers aren’t ready for the pressure of tournament basketball in neutral settings.

Oregon State’s accomplishments are magnified by the fact that this team lost guard Jamie Weisner to a left wrist injury on Jan. 31. The Beavers’ nine-game winning streak is the product of balance, and of a bench that has made substantial contributions.

Freshman Sydney Wiese leads this team (among all active players) with 13.6 points and four assists per game. Center Ruth Hamblin averages 10.1 points and 8.6 rebounds, giving OSU a significant presence in the low post. This game against Washington will offer a fascinating study in contrasts. The Huskies depend on two players for a large share of their production, while Oregon State has learned to win with widely shared contributions from its roster.


Semifinals -- Saturday, March 8

Game Nine: Winner Game Five (COLORADO-UCLA v. STANFORD) v. Winner Game Six (ARIZONA-USC v. ARIZONA STATE) - 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST (P12N)

USC, it should be said, gained a 19-point first-half lead over Stanford on Feb. 21 before falling by only five, 64-59. Stanford drubbed Arizona State in each of the two meetings between the schools, giving rise to the belief that USC would be the tougher opponent for the Cardinal. Yes, it’s hard to beat the same team three times in one season, but Stanford would be in position to do so regardless of the opponent (assuming that USC and ASU meet in the quarters). USC’s offense might be able to do enough to supplement its defense. Arizona State doesn’t inspire the same degree of confidence at the moment.

Game Ten:  Winner Game Seven (Oregon-Washington State v. CALIFORNIA) v. Winner Game Eight (UTAH-WASHINGTON v. OREGON STATE) --8:30 p.m. PST/11:30 p.m. EST (P12N)

When Cal lost to UCLA in last year’s semifinals, the Bears’ backcourt simply couldn’t buy a bucket in the first 30 minutes. That’s the scenario that will likely need to unfold if Oregon State is to pull the upset.

Championship Game - Sunday, March 9

Game 11: Winner Semifinal 1 v. Winner Semifinal 2 --6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST (ESPN)

If Stanford and Cal do meet in the final – something that didn’t happen last year when UCLA defeated Berkeley in the semis – jump shooting will be a central key to victory for both teams. The flow of play on Friday and Saturday would also shape the backdrop to such a contest if it occurs.

Oregon State, Arizona State, and the fifth through twelfth seeds will do their best to ensure that the Bay Area schools don’t occupy the whole spotlight on Sunday evening in the Emerald City. Yet, the odds suggest that’s not going to happen. UCLA’s size and length enabled the Bruins to power their way past Cal last year, creating an unexpected Key Arena collision with the Cardinal. This year, there’s no UCLA equivalent among the third through sixth seeds, although Washington – from the sixth spot – might be able to make a darkhorse run.

A final point is worth stressing about the league’s schedule for this tournament, something briefly alluded to earlier: This year, the top half of the bracket plays the earlier games on each of the first three days of the tournament. This is a reversal created by Washington’s presence in the bottom half of the bracket. Last year, Stanford labored for portions of its semifinal against Colorado and throughout its title game against UCLA. Playing in the night session created a shorter turnaround time for the Cardinal.

This year, playing the first quarterfinal on Friday and the first semifinal on Saturday will give the Cardinal more of a rest should they make their way through to the final as expected. In general, top seeds deserve to play early games rather than late ones at conference tournaments. Higher seeds deserve the right to not have to wait for other games to finish, which also means that they should be able to scout opponents in the second half of a two-game session. Stanford has that piece in place this year, which should only add weight to the notion that the Cardinal are going to win this tournament.

The one obvious plot twist that could ambush Stanford: This year, Cal might actually get to the final. Last’s year’s Final Four representative from the Pac-12 would create the toughest Sunday night matchup the league champions from Palo Alto could expect.