The Pac-12 will no longer surprise anyone. Not with the way the conference teams once again shone on the national stage.
Pac-12 coaches and players knew long before last spring’s NCAA tournament that they were having one of the most talented conferences in the country.
Then Stanford edged Arizona by just one point in the NCAA Championship game, 54-53. The Pac-12 plan to represent again in March, with No.3 Stanford leading the program’s title defense and Oregon also in the AP’s Top 25 at No.10. Three more are also in. the poll.
Stanford won its first championship since 1992 and the third in history last season, a remarkable end to a season in which the Cardinal spent nearly 10 weeks away from campus given restrictions in Santa Clara County banning sports events and practices due to COVID-19.
“Last year looks a bit like a blur,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “But we’ve been through a lot and kudos to Pac-12 for having two teams in the championship game and six teams in the tournament. And we’re going to be greedy, go for more next year.
Arizona sixth-year coach Adia Barnes challenges his team not to appreciate that second place given how good the Pac-12 still is and how difficult it will be to return and to triumph this time.
“It doesn’t look any different,” she said. “I know people are like, ‘Oh, it was a magical race,’ but that’s how it is. It’s last year. The reality is we haven’t won. It was great to get there, but our standards are really very high. Now that they’ve tasted success, they’re really hungry for more.
DELIVERY OF DUCKS
Coach Kelly Graves has guided Oregon to four straight appearances in the Sweet Sixteen. Today, Oregon’s top returning player Nyara Sabally is looking forward to playing in front of home fans for the first time.
“They haven’t seen any of our team play live before,” she said.
Sabally is surrounded by a mix of young players and transfers, so we can count on her to lead the way. The 6-foot-5 German junior forward averaged a team highs 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“We don’t have a single player playing in front of Duck fans,” Graves said.
Graves was in awe of the scenes from Pac-12 Media Day in San Francisco earlier this month.
“Just watching the student-athletes walk around and knowing how good they are is a little intimidating,” said Graves. “It’s going to be a hell of a year in the Pac-12.”
Five conference teams are in the AP preseason poll for a sixth straight season, leaving the Pac-12 tied for the highest-ranked teams with the ACC and Big Ten. Stanford is at # 3, Oregon # 10, Oregon State # 14, UCLA at 20, and Arizona at 22.
“We know that if we’re able to survive and thrive in the Pac-12 pace that the NCAA tournament will be, I’m not going to say a walk in the park, but a lot easier,” the coach. UCLA Cori Close mentioned.
USC freshman coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who spent eight seasons as Cal’s head coach from 2011 to 2019, is back in the Pac-12 after two seasons on the NBA bench as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It changed my life,” Gottlieb said. “Even though it was short, it was a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone, to do something scary and difficult but really powerful. … I just had the opportunity to grow up in so many ways. So I always thought that I would probably end up coming back and being the head coach, I didn’t know when or where. But USC is no ordinary.
The Trojans are thrilled to have junior Alissa Pili at full strength after her second season was interrupted by an ankle injury that cost her the first 10 games. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2019-20, Pili made the injury worse on January 24 against Stanford.
The women of USC are eager to see their growth under Gottlieb.
“Just the knowledge aspect of it, we’re just learning more about the game, about ourselves and about ourselves as a program,” said forward Jordan Sanders, a graduate student.
Third-year coach Charmin Smith – who took over from Gottlieb at Berkeley – and his Golden Bears are thankful that they even played games during the pandemic given how shorthanded they were.
“I really can’t wait that we’re in a situation where we can show our full potential and they can really show their talent because they work extremely hard,” said Smith.
Cal went 1-16 overall and 1-12 in the Pac-12 game, defeating Arizona State on February 21 in its penultimate game – and now has several healthy players.
“The whole pandemic has just brought us closer,” said junior guard Leilani McIntosh. “We were a very young team and we didn’t have those eight weeks with other teams that didn’t. This quarantine and the fact that we’re in this isolated area just brought us closer on and off the pitch. “
In Tucson, you won’t find Barnes and the Wildcats arguing about what could have been.
Arizona’s first rematch against Stanford takes place Jan. 30 on the road, and the Wildcats won’t host the Cardinal this season.
The success of last season only fuels this group.
“It doesn’t change our approach. It doesn’t change the way we work, ”Barnes said. “You’re always going to see us dive to the ground, crush people, collect bullets, that’s who we are. It is our identity.