Jue. Abr 18th, 2024


STANFORD, Calif. — The Maples Pavilion crowd was increasingly restless. The No. 4 Stanford Cardinal were facing the 15th-ranked USC Trojans in their sole regular-season meeting, and USC freshman JuJu Watkins was on a heater.

The phenom came out of the locker room with 25 points, but murmurs emerged from the stands as Watkins sank basket after basket to start the second half.

A pull-up 3-pointer in transition. Free throws. A midrange baseline jumper. A step-back at the free throw line.

After Watkins swished her next shot — a transition 3 from the same spot as the first — Stanford fans could only oooh and aaaah.

USC downed Stanford 67-58, and Watkins finished with a school-record 51 points, the most by any men’s or women’s Division I player this season. Against the Pac-12 perennial power. On the Cardinal’s home floor, no less.

Watkins’ 50-piece stands alone, but fierce matchups between top-15 teams and highlight-reel performances were nightly occurrences in the Pac-12 this season. Conference play was a virtual gauntlet of heavyweight clashes, where teams either further strengthened their résumés or took one on the chin late Friday night in #Pac12AfterDark, even if much of the country was sleeping.

No single conference influenced the upper echelon of the 2024 women’s NCAA tournament bracket more than the Pac-12. USC — which beat Stanford again last week to win its first Pac-12 tournament title since 2014 — earned its first No. 1 seed in nearly four decades. Pac-12 teams made up a quarter of the top 16, with USC, No. 2 seeds Stanford and UCLA, and third-seeded Oregon State earning the right to host early-round games when the tournament opens Friday. Seven Pac-12 teams are in the bracket, tying the league record.

The conference once pejoratively referred to as «Stanford and the 11 Dwarfs» has this year staked its claim as the country’s best league.

The only problem? The Pac-12 as we know it will soon cease to exist.

The disintegration of the conference — first set in motion when UCLA and USC declared in June 2022 they’d be departing for the Big Ten — has loomed over college athletics for the past eight months. Upon the conference’s failure to secure a lucrative television deal, eight additional schools bolted for the Big Ten, Big 12 or ACC, leaving the Pac-12 with just Oregon State and Washington State.

And no revenue sport might mourn the Pac-12’s end as deeply as women’s basketball.

«It’s just unfortunate because we’ve built something really great,» Teresa Gould, newly appointed Pac-12 commissioner, told ESPN, «and for a number of other reasons and other circumstances and consequences, something that is really, really special is now going to be pulled apart.»

For the teams that will bear the Pac-12 banner one final time this postseason, there’d be no better ending than for the league to have a thunderous March, for the «Conference of Champions» to bring home one more. And this year more than most, that might be possible.



USC Trojans’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for USC’s NCAA tournament prospects.

COACH JR PAYNE, in one of her first years at Colorado, watched as Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer was interviewed on the court at Seattle’s KeyArena after winning the Pac-12 tournament. VanDerveer spoke to the league’s strength, said the Pac-12 helped prepare the Cardinal for the postseason and mentioned each program by name.

«It blew my mind,» Payne told ESPN. «I remember going, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s actually going to talk about us.'»

For as nice of a gesture as it was — Payne said her Buffs at the time weren’t very good — the league wasn’t yet the top-to-bottom juggernaut it is today. Outside of three-time national champion Stanford, Pac-12 schools didn’t consistently make noise nationally. Before Cal’s 2013 run, only the Cardinal had advanced to a Final Four under the Pac-10/12 banner (the league expanded to 12 teams in 2011). Geography and time zones also worked against the league.

«I know that people didn’t take our conference very seriously,» former Stanford star and two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike told ESPN. «I just feel as though we were neglected in a lot of different ways.»

The past decade flipped the narrative. The 2012 launch of the Pac-12 Network widely expanded distribution of Pac-12 women’s basketball games and helped in recruiting. More West Coast stars stayed closer to home — such as Californians Kelsey Plum (Washington) and Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon), who both led their programs to the Final Four. The trend expanded past household names, too. Eleven of the 24 2022 McDonald’s All Americans, from all over the country, were Pac-12 signees.

The uptick in television exposure created a sense of accountability. «All of a sudden,» Oregon State coach Scott Rueck told ESPN, «you needed to be good at women’s basketball because it was on TV, and people were paying attention.» And the more new programs did well, the more others felt they could join the party — or needed to keep up. When coaching jobs opened, schools tended to look for proven winners with experience building winning cultures. Athletic departments deepened their investment in women’s basketball, including larger salaries.



Stanford Cardinal’s NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Stanford’s NCAA tournament prospects.

Schools began to schedule more intentionally too. Former Washington coach Mike Neighbors presented a plan about a decade ago recommending the conference’s better teams schedule more quality nonconference opponents with NCAA tournament seeding in mind, while the others should schedule to win as many games as possible.

Through it all, one collective mentality formed: «Back the Pac.»

Coaches realized for the league to grow, they had to stand «uniquely unified behind women’s basketball,» USC’s Lindsay Gottlieb, who also previously coached at Cal for 11 years, told ESPN. To help themselves, they also had to help each other.

«We’re all different, and coaches are weird people, competitors and quirky,» Utah’s Lynne Roberts told ESPN. «But there’s such a level of respect and understanding that, ‘If she’s good and he’s good, and I’m good, it’s going to make us all better,’ versus ‘I want you to fail. I want you to fail, and I want to win.'»



UCLA Bruins’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for UCLA’s NCAA tournament prospects.

The tone was set by VanDerveer, who condemned negative recruiting within the league, and in coaches meetings always made it about what was best for the conference. Coaches agreed on the importance of publicly uplifting opposing Pac-12 teams.

«It was noticeable from the get-go that it was very different than the other leagues I’d been in where it was just worry about yourself,» Neighbors, now the head coach at Arkansas, told ESPN. «The league really cared about the league.»

The results showed. Since 2013, eight different teams have won a Pac-12 regular-season or tournament title. Over the past 10 seasons, the Pac-12’s 78.2% nonconference winning percentage is the best of any league. In that span, every Pac-12 school has appeared in the NCAA tournament — only the SEC can also claim that — and its 65% winning percentage in the Big Dance ranks best among Power 5 conferences. After managing two or three bids each year from 2008 to ’12, the conference has sent at least six teams to each of the past seven tournaments.

«They’re not the underdog anymore … they’re there,» Neighbors said. «They’ve earned the respect of everybody I’ve come in contact with in women’s basketball.»

SEMINAL MOMENTS IN the Pac-12’s final season happened in a non-Pac-12 city: Las Vegas. On the opening day of the season at T-Mobile Arena, USC and Colorado upset then-No. 7 Ohio State and top-ranked LSU, respectively, in the Hall of Fame Series. Four months later, across the Strip at MGM Grand Garden Arena, the conference held its final tournament.

The quarterfinals were so stacked that Gottlieb posited the double-overtime Oregon State-Colorado matchup was practically an Elite Eight game. Their semifinal the next day against UCLA? Basically a Final Four meeting, Gottlieb said — at least, «I hope we’re not facing a team as good as UCLA prior to that.»



Oregon State Beavers’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Oregon State’s NCAA tournament prospects.

Those moments bookend a season that has signaled the Pac-12 is the most formidable league in the nation. Following USC’s and Colorado’s wins, five Pac-12 teams were ranked in the top 10, and six were in the poll overall. The league’s 32-0 start to nonconference action was the longest such streak over the past 25 years. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Pac-12 is the top NET league, with UCLA (8), USC (8) and Stanford (7) boasting the most top-25 NET wins. South Carolina has six.

After Stanford’s semifinal win over Oregon State, VanDerveer proclaimed, «Wouldn’t it be fun to have four [Pac-12] teams in the Final Four?» That isn’t likely, but the league could send multiple teams to Cleveland.

«Whoever gets into the postseason is as ready as anyone anywhere because we’ve already been through what feels like a postseason by the time we get there.»

Oregon State coach Scott Rueck on the rigorous Pac-12 season

Stanford captured its 27th regular-season title in February, a fitting conclusion for the Pac-12’s swan song, and VanDerveer became college basketball’s all-time wins leader in January. Senior Cameron Brink, whom Ogwumike calls the «quintessential Stanford women’s basketball player,» earned Pac-12 Player of the Year, and she’s the projected No. 2 pick in April’s WNBA draft.

Led by point guard Jaylyn Sherrod, Colorado — a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament — asserted itself into the contender conversation by becoming the first team to defeat a defending champion in its season opener since 1995. Picked 10th in the preseason poll, Oregon State’s Rueck might have his best team in years behind a young roster featuring budding sophomore Raegan Beers and no seniors.

Injuries have impacted No. 5 seed Utah, the conference’s preseason favorite, but the Utes turned heads in December as 2023 Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili scored 37 points on South Carolina in a tight loss — prompting Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley to declare afterward, «It’s impossible to stop her.» Iowa’s Caitlin Clark is the only other player to score more against the Gamecocks over the past two years.

After going undefeated in nonconference play, including wins over UConn and Ohio State, the Bruins captured their best ranking in program history (No. 2), anchored by a program-shifting, intraconference transfer in sophomore Lauren Betts. Their crosstown showdowns with USC broke each program’s attendance records with a combined 24,000-plus fans.

But it was the Trojans who were the last team standing in Las Vegas earlier this month, Watkins placing her championship hat atop her trademark bun, McKenzie Forbes breaking into tears when presented the trophy for most outstanding player, and Clarice Akunwafo slapping the USC sticker on the final line of the tournament bracket, with red and yellow confetti littering the floor.

Watkins’ impact is undisputed. She’s the country’s second-leading scorer and presumptive national freshman of the year. At the time of her commitment, when 2023’s top recruit decided to stay home in Los Angeles, the once-iconic Trojans hadn’t made the tournament since 2014. They haven’t made it past the first weekend of the tournament since 1994, with Lisa Leslie.



Colorado Buffaloes’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Colorado’s NCAA tournament prospects.

Now the Trojans have captured their first No. 1 seed since 1986 — Cheryl Miller’s senior year — propelled by Watkins, who’s shaping up to be the next star of a generation.

«I’m not sure if I’ve met young athletes and young women that are built like her,» Ogwumike said. «I really was impressed by not just her character and stature, but I was also very inspired by it.»

Coaches insist the league has never been stronger from top to bottom, and they have been «just trying to survive» the last two months of league competition, Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. Despite having only seven scholarship players, the 11th-seeded Wildcats received an at-large invitation after winning five of their last eight conference games. Washington State (whose star Charlisse Leger-Walker was lost midseason due to injury), Washington and Cal were among bubble teams.

«It’s this beautiful level of competition that demands everything you have every night,» Rueck said. «Whoever gets into the postseason is as ready as anyone anywhere because we’ve already been through what feels like a postseason by the time we get there.»



Utah Utes’ NCAA women’s tournament preview

Charlie Creme breaks down his forecast for Utah’s NCAA tournament prospects.

AS NORTHERN CALIFORNIA kids, Roberts had a Stanford women’s basketball poster on her wall growing up, and as a sophomore in high school Close went to VanDerveer’s first basketball camp. A younger Barnes couldn’t wait for her parents to come to her games at Arizona, a drivable distance from San Diego; in 1997-98, she won Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Neighbors still has a sign in his bar at home from a «College GameDay» at Washington that says, «The Pac-12, at least we can count.» It’ll be a nice collector’s item now.

Just about every emotion has hit the coaches over the past eight months. At first, the shock and dismay of the league’s dismantlement — «One of those things you think will never go away,» Payne said.

«I’m extremely proud of where we are and what we’ve done, and I’m extremely pained about what’s going to happen in the future.»

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer

«It’s been the model conference,» Barnes added, citing Pac-12 schools’ strong academics, athletics (including Olympic sports traditions) and care for student-athletes.

Ogwumike felt almost confused by the news of conference realignment. «What adds a little bit to my obfuscation,» she said, «is we have so many strong teams in the Pac right now, and it’s not going to be there anymore.»

Coaches are looking forward to fresh opponents in new leagues, new styles of play to scheme against, new cities to explore. But reality set in as the lasts came around. The weekend Watkins scored 51 marked Gottlieb’s final trip to the Bay Area. USC associate head coach Beth Burns, who briefly worked at Stanford in the 2000s, went for a run on the Palo Alto campus only to wonder whether she’d ever return.

Some of those matchups will be maintained with Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado joining the Big 12; UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon the Big Ten; and Stanford and Cal the ACC. The hope is others eventually can be restored in nonconference play.

But long-standing regional pairings and rivalries are now gone, as is a prominent West Coast conference to encapsulate them all.

«I’m extremely proud of where we are and what we’ve done,» VanDerveer told ESPN, «and I’m extremely pained about what’s going to happen in the future.»

No one likely feels the weight of change more than VanDerveer, who while not hiding her sadness has continued to champion the Pac-12 throughout the season and express excitement over Stanford’s move to the ACC.

«In some ways she’s taught us how to love it and celebrate it and embrace the legacy, but also not impede progress,» Gould said. «We have to turn the page and move forward and just hope that women’s basketball on all 12 of these campuses continues to be a priority the way it has been.»

But in an ever-changing landscape of college sports, a sliver of optimism remains. Maybe this isn’t the last chapter.

«There is something deep down inside that seems to think somehow they’re going to figure this thing out,» Oregon coach Kelly Graves told ESPN, «and we’ll all be back together at some point, in some form.»

There’s no telling how many more twists and turns would need to happen for that to potentially transpire, although instability is the status quo these days in college athletics.

Regardless, the players and programs who originated from the Pac-12 will represent the West Coast, and what once was a great conference, moving forward. That starts now, with a national championship up for the taking.

«I think the league’s going to show out,» Roberts said. «Everyone has a lot of pride.»

«The Pac 12 as we know it will never be the same,» Burns said. «So why don’t you be the last guy on that line to win it?»


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