Posted on November 24, 2020
The season edges ever closer for Pac-12 women’s basketball. If the Conference and the world of the NCAA can get through it, it promises to be yet another great year in the league. The problem is getting there. As we close in on Nov. 25, the world of college basketball can only hold its breath and keep its fingers crossed.
Preseason Honors Galore
Arizona’s Aari McDonald and UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere stand atop the conference as the most honored players in the Pac-12. Both are preseason AP All-Americans with McDonald being the first such honoree in the Wildcats’ history.
Both are on the preseason watch lists for the Hoophall Starting Five Awards presented by the WBCA and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. McDonald won the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the nation’s best shooting guard last year. (No, she’s not really a shooting guard.) She’s back up for it this year.
Onyenwere was one of the final 10 small forwards in the running for the Cheryl Miller Award in 2019-20. Conference foe Satou Sabally of Oregon took the hardware then. Onyenwere has a shot to keep it in the Pac-12 this year.
The Wade Trophy, given to the best player in college basketball by the WBCA have both the Wildcat and the Bruin on that preseason watch list, too. Yet again, they hope to keep it in the league after former Oregon Duck Sabrina Ionescu won it the last two years.
The Naismith Trophy, presented by the Atlanta Tip-Off Club, wouldn’t be complete without the two Pac-12 seniors. Once again, the pair leads the way for the league.
McDonald and Onyenwere may get most of the attention this season, but they aren’t the only Pac-12 players to find their names on preseason watch lists.
On the Starting Five watch lists, Utah’s Dru Glyten appears on the Nancy Lieberman Award for point guards. Taylor Mikesell (Oregon), Kiana Williams (Stanford), Charisma Osborne (UCLA) and Brynna Maxwell (Utah) all join McDonald on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watch list.
Onyenwere is joined by small forwards Erin Boley (Oregon) and Haley Jones (Stanford) on the Cheryl Miller Award watch list. In the post, Cate Reese (Arizona), Taylor Jones (Oregon State), Francesca Belibi (Stanford), Cameron Brink (Stanford) and Alissa Pili (USC) all made the Katrina McClain Award watch list for power forwards.
On the player of the year award lists, McDonald and Onyenwere were joined on the WBCA’s Wade Trophy watch list by Lexie Hull and Williams of Stanford, as well as UCLA’s Charisma Osborne. On the Naismith Trophy watch list, it was Aleah Goodman (Oregon State), Hull (Stanford), Haley Jones (Stanford), Taylor Jones (Oregon State), Pili (USC), Reese (Arizona) and Williams (Stanford) joining the two preseason AP All-Americans.
The Best of the Pac
The media’s Preseason All-Pac-12 list was dominated by three teams: Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State. The two teams at the top of the polls and the Top 25 Beavers each placed three players on the 15-player team.
For the Cardinal, Hull, Haley Jones and Williams led the way. The Wildcat trio consists of McDonald, Reese and Sam Thomas.
The Beavers placed Goodman, Taylor Jones and Kennedy Brown on the list. Unfortunately for OSU, Brown underwent surgery for a torn ACL in March and is unlikely to play much (if at all) this season.
The rest of the list includes UCLA’s Onyenwere and Osborne, Oregon’s Erin Boley and Sedona Prince, USC’s Alissa Pili and Utah’s Maxwell.
Those who appeared on at least four ballots earned honorable mention status: Francesca Belibi (Stanford), Taylor Chavez (Oregon), Jazlen Green (California), Dru Glyten (Utah), Mya Hollingshed (Colorado), Mikesell (Oregon), Endiya Rogers (USC), Jaz Shelley (Oregon) and Jaylyn Sherrod (Colorado).
Who Ya Got?
With McDonald and Onyenwere garnering so much attention as individuals, it’s not surprising that their teams are also expected to do well. Both the Wildcats and the Bruins landed in the Top 10 of the AP poll and WBCA Coaches Poll, but they weren’t the top Pac-12 team.
That would be the Stanford Cardinal. The team whose coach needs just five wins to take over the all-time wins record in women’s Division I basketball is expected to return to the top rung of the ladder that Oregon had wrested from them the last two years.
The Wildcats came right behind them in the poll of Pac-12 coaches and media, placing second with the media and tying Oregon for second with the coaches. The team garnered one first-place vote from the media and two from the league’s coaches.
Getting more than one first-place nod in the coaches poll is significant because it means earning the vote of someone other than your own coach (who can’t vote for you) and the coach of the top team (who can’t vote for her own team).
If the Wildcats were to earn the top spot in the league, it would be the first time since 2004 that they won at least a share of the regular-season Conference crown. That year, Arizona and Stanford had identical Pac-10 records in the regular season with each team winning on its home court.
The rubber match was played in the Conference tournament final, a few miles down the interstate from Stanford in San Jose. The Cardinal won the title and the automatic berth.
While they didn’t garner any first-place votes, the Ducks tied the Wildcats in points for second on the coaches’ list. The media placed them third.
UCLA came in fourth with both sets of voters. They were followed by Oregon State which received one first-place vote from the media.
The media and coaches couldn’t agree about who would round out the bottom of the top half of the league and who would start the bottom half. USC and last year’s Freshman of the Year were voted sixth by the coaches, leapfrogging over Arizona State. The media has the two teams switched.
The remarkably consistent Sun Devils finished just ahead of USC in sixth place last year. If the coaches’ predictions hold true, it would be the first time they have finished in the bottom half of the Conference standings since the 2012-13 season.
Utah was selected eighth in both polls, but the young team has a real chance at doing better than that. Behind them are Colorado (9th in the coaches’ poll, 10th in the media poll) and California (10th in coaches’ poll, 9th according to the media).
Washington and Washington State bring up the rear, placing 11th and 12th respectively in both polls.
The national media and coaches were largely on the same page as those locally. They put four teams in the top 10 of both polls: Stanford (No. 2 in both), Arizona (No. 7 AP/No. 8 WBCA), UCLA (No. 9 AP/No. 10 WBCA) and Oregon (No. 10 AP/No. 9 WBCA). Oregon State was the other ranked team, coming in at No. 18 in the media’s poll and No. 17 according to the coaches. Arizona State received votes in both polls.
The Queen of the Conference
With Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer closing in on the momentous feat of passing Pat Summitt as the all-time leader in NCAA women’s basketball coaching wins, several coaches were asked about her influence on them. One after another mentioned how she was the first to welcome them to the league when they were first hired.
More important was her leadership in growing the prestige of the league.
“So my first year I think in the conference,” Colorado head coach JR Payne said of an interview she recalls, “Tara mentioned every single Pac-12 team, every single one. So she mentioned her team, of course, but the 11 other schools, she mentioned about how strong they were and how good they were, and how that had helped prepare them. And that actually really struck me. This is one of the greatest coaches in the history of our game. And in this big shining moment, she’s taking the opportunity to talk about how great everybody else is.”
Others, such as Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, talked about how they model some of their own coaching on her, including how to deal with the pandemic.
“In our last week’s Pac-12 meeting, Tara had this great idea with her team,” Barnes said. “She kind of played this game and made everybody aware of how it affects them if one person’s infected. So, I’m actually going to steal that from Tara like I steal many things. I steal from the best.”
VanDerveer accepts her responsibility as the figurehead of the Conference’s coaches with characteristic humility, saying, “We’re all in this together.”
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