The question for the Pac-12 Conference is whether anyone else can play their way into the NCAAs with a strong performance in the conference tournament this week at KeyArena in Seattle.
“There’s a lot of good teams in this conference,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
The tournament gets started today with UCLA facing Colorado, USC against Arizona, Washington State against Oregon and Washington taking on Utah in the nightcap. Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Arizona State all received first-round byes after finishing in the top four of the conference standings.
Right now, those four are almost locks for the NCAAs. But the next tier — USC and Washington especially — could play themselves into NCAA consideration with a good tournament run.
Stanford is again the favorite as it was a year ago when the tournament made its debut in Seattle. The Cardinal won the tournament title but saw their NCAA quest cut short after losing to Georgia in the regional semifinals.
This season, Stanford raced through conference play, going 17-1 behind the play of Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike, who finished the regular season averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds per game. The Cardinal’s only loss since Nov. 11 came in Seattle in an 87-82 setback to Washington in February.
“I’m not sure any of us have a blueprint for stopping Chiney,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said.
While Cal (21-8) will be the No. 2 seed for the conference tourney a year after reaching its first Final Four, it’s the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds that had the most surprising regular seasons.
Oregon State (21-9) and Arizona State (22-8) were picked to finish eighth and 10th in the league, respectively, in the preseason. The Beavers finished tied with Cal in the final standings, their highest conference finish since 1995-96. Oregon State has won 11 of its last 12 games, the only setback being a 64-62 loss at Arizona State in late January. Otherwise, the Beavers have been on a roll.
“I think the wins are a byproduct of just playing right all the time,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “That’s one of the strongest attributes of this team, day in and day out and even more because of our youth, that we can be at that level. And I think that’s probably been the reason for our growth, our consistent growth through the year.”
Arizona State staggered to the finish, losing five of its final seven, including being swept by the Oregon schools last weekend.
USC and Washington — both under first-year coaches — would have the most to gain out of the weekend if they can win their first-round games and possibly pull an upset in the quarterfinals. The Huskies — the only team to beat Stanford and Cal — need three wins to get to the 20-win mark, while USC, now coached by Cynthia Cooper-Dyke , needs only two.
“I thought this was a really good season for us. We’re still trying to implement a mentality and culture of winning, and how to prepare for a game, and even how to prepare for a second half and close out games,” Cooper-Dyke said. “We’re still a work in progress but I thought my team really played hard on both ends of the floor.”