12 Pac-12 pre-conference tournament things (and awards!)

The Pac-12 Conference Tournament begins Thursday. Oregon, the preseason favorite, sits atop the bracket. Stanford and Oregon State, who each beat the Ducks in the regular season, are slotted in the opposite side. With a win in the second round, UCLA could get another crack at Oregon after those teams treated us to an overtime thriller just over a week ago.

Let’s bounce around the conference, noting one thing to watch for each team over the weekend as the tournament unfolds (unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics obtained via Her Hoop Stats). Stay tuned until the end, where I’ll share my officially unofficial Pac-12 awards picks.

Cheers to a fantastic season of regular season of Pac-12 basketball with more entertaining games right around the corner:

12. Washington Huskies

The results have not been there for Jody Wynn and the Huskies in the win-loss column, but the team’s record does not indicate how competitive they have been in the Pac-12. Washington regularly extends its defense and has forced 18 turnovers per game. They shoot a whole bunch of threes — a 42% three-point rate puts them in the 94th percentile in the country.

If the Huskies knock down their threes and force live ball turnovers to generate run outs, they’re in business. Amber Melgoza is having a wonderful season, scoring nearly 19 per game while shooting 36.7% from deep. The sophomore guard has the 11th highest usage rate in the country at 35%.

Nine of Washington’s 10 players have knocked down 10 or more three-pointers this season. I’m fully expecting their first round matchup with Cal to be Thursday’s game of the day.

via Arizona Daily Star

11. Arizona

The Wildcats struggled to compete in conference this season, though Adia Barnes is just getting started with this program. They do shoot well from the line — 76.3% as a team. Arizona’s two Pac-12 wins this season came against Washington and Colorado. Arizona also gave Cal a serious scare January 7 at home. The Golden Bears escaped with a 53-51 victory.

Senior JaLea Bennett has been the biggest bright spot on this squad, leading them in scoring at 14 points per game. The burden on her shoulders to create offense has been heavy — her 33.2 usage rate ranks in the 98th percentile and is leaps and bounds beyond what she’s been asked to do previously in her career. Bennett’s usage rate ranged from 18.1% to 20.8% in her first three seasons.

If the Wildcats can knock down some shots and slow the game down, they could keep things close against Arizona State and even Oregon State in a potential second round matchup.

10. Washington State

Borislava Hristova, or Bobi Buckets, is a truly unique scorer in the college game. Her usage rate has been sky high ever since she suited up for the first time for June and Mike Daugherty (30.5% this season, which puts her in the 98th percentile in the country).

Hristova plays with a rare blend of pace, freedom and confidence. She has a bit of her own rhythm,  which you’ll spot if you look closely at the kind of pull up jumpers she’s able to take and make. Bobi Buckets will shoot off the bounce, from deep or with a hand in her face. If somebody is going to score 70 points in two days in Seattle, Hristova is probably the favorite to do so.

9. Colorado

Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson are a potent duo that will not be overlooked by opposing Pac-12 coaches, but the most interesting player in the bottom third of the standings just might be a true freshman that hasn’t started a single game this season for JR Payne’s Buffs.

6’4 Mya Hollingshed averaged 16 minutes per game off the bench this season, but really seems to have adjusted well to Pac-12 play of late. She’s shooting 44% from deep, buoyed some by a 6-for-10 three-point shooting barrage against Oregon State January 28. The solid performances continued to pour in, though, for Hollingshed — 16 points and nine rebounds February 4 against Utah, four triples February 15 against Washington, then nine points and five rebounds in a season-high 30 minutes against USC in the regular season finale.

via University of Utah website

8. Utah

The Utes are a solid offensive group without any major holes when at full strength. 6’6 Emily Potter is a strong presence inside that can go to work one on one or find the cracks in the defense to score off the catch with quick flips and midrange jumpers. Daneesha Provo (42.7%) and Tori Williams (36.4%) have been reliable three-point shooters around her.

Lynne Roberts and her team would need Megan Huff at her absolute best this weekend to rattle off a few wins. The redshirt junior forward appeared to fade in and out at times against the class of the conference this season. She led the team in scoring and rebounding while also canning 38.5% of her threes.

Huff has missed the team’s last two games, and Provo has not played since February 16.

7. USC

Mark Trakh’s team has played some great basketball down the stretch of the regular season as they have really settled on an identity that suits their personnel.

Minyon Moore and Aliyah Mazyck never turn down opportunities to attack early in the shot clock. Sadie Edwards is a strong secondary option playing off of them to make a play against a scrambled defense. Kristen Simon is a monster down on the block constantly finding ways to carve out space and get her shots off against bigger players. Sixth year senior Jordan Adams is the glue holding everything together.

This team’s margin for error is paper thin though, as they essentially play just six players. Early foul trouble for just one player early in a game could totally derail them. The Women of Troy also have to defend with a great deal of discipline when tired because they look to get out on the break so often.

Mazyck is their main perimeter threat, shooting 34% from deep on 250 attempts. Simon has actually hit 10 of her 26 attempts on the season. She should look to take a few more, especially when she is trailing on the break and her defender sags down into the paint out of instinct to protect the basket.

This team will be a nightmare to handle whenever Simon gets rolling. She’s physical and persistent inside, capable of getting to the free throw line in bunches. USC sees a zone on nearly 43% of their halfcourt possessions per Synergy, though their effectiveness has been about the same against man-to-man (0.82 points per possession) or zone (0.83 points per possession).

via Pac-12 website

6. Arizona State

The Sun Devils need Kianna Ibis to shine to win multiple games in this tournament. Arizona State seems to be safe enough that they’ll make the NCAA tournament regardless, but a win or two against the top teams in the conference would do wonders for their confidence.

Per Synergy, Ibis has been good for 0.97 points per possession on post ups (83rd percentile) this season and 1.05 points per possession on cuts (64th percentile).

Ibis is a tough matchup at the four position, especially once she knocks down a jumper or two. Her ability to face up and attack the basket could be the recipe to get a key opposing player into foul trouble, which would be just enough for Charli Turner Thorne’s team to rattle off a few upsets.

The Sun Devils knocked off Stanford at home on January 7 — their only win this season against one of the top four seeds. Also worth noting: Courtney Ekmark shot 41% from deep in conference play.

5. Cal

The Golden Bears need to be able to play through Kristine Anigwe. The problem? Per Synergy, Cal has been up against a zone on a third of their halfcourt possessions.

Freshmen Kianna Smith and Jaelyn Brown have had some very nice moments scoring the ball and even making plays off the bounce this season, but Cal needs its veteran leaders Asha Thomas and Mikayla Cowling to knock down shots to truly ignite their offense. When the offense stagnates, two or three defenders will surround Anigwe even when she doesn’t have the ball.

Cal is actually shooting 34.2% from deep this season, but their 26.3% three-point attempt rate puts them in the 18th percentile. Translation: This team has shot the three ball just fine, but they barely take any of them.

Thomas has been their most consistent outside threat (1.16 points per possession on spot ups per Synergy). Perhaps Lindsay Gottlieb will install another set or two to get Thomas off the ball against a zone to free her up to fire away.

via BruinsNation

4. UCLA

Jordin Canada has not stopped getting better in her career at UCLA. Canada assists 41.1% of her team’s made baskets, good for ninth in the nation. She’s a disruptive defender and a terror in the open floor. Most notable of all is her three-point shooting, which has shot all the way up to a tidy 40%.

Canada is taking 28.5% of her shots from downtown, up from her previous career high of 16.3%. Defenders taking that extra half step closer with her three-pointer in mind are toast — she doesn’t need much room to slice through a defense off the bounce.

Catch them on the wrong night and the Bruins can look offensively challenged beyond Canada and Monique Billings. Teams have looked to zone the Bruins quite often, which narrows Canada’s driving lanes and limits Billings’ post up opportunities. Per Synergy, opponents have zoned up the Bruins a staggering 44.4% of their halfcourt possessions.

Kelli Hayes and Japreece Dean are solid three-point shooters. Cori Close can put those two on the floor with Canada to open up the offense, but there’s a flip side to that kind of decision — it leaves fewer minutes for two of Lajahna Drummer, Kennedy Burke and Michaela Onyenwere to play in tandem. Two of those three with Billings puts a whole bunch of length and athleticism around Canada, allowing them to crank up their defense to another level.

Burke is arguably the best defender and shooter of that group. She’ll likely find herself on the floor in big moments for this team regardless. Drummer and Onyenwere are also key on the offensive glass, which has been one of their biggest strengths. The Bruins rebound 41.5% of their own misses, the eighth best mark in the country.

The simplest and most controllable key to victory against UCLA: avoid live ball turnovers. The Bruins get nearly a quarter of their offense in transition. A player falling out of bounds or stuck after picking up her dribble is probably better off chucking the ball into the stands a la Kelsey Plum, human t-shirt cannon.

Close has done a great job in building this roster as Canada and Billings have grown into complete stars. With both of them humming along and getting enough timely scoring from their supporting cast, the Bruins have shown that they need to be taken seriously in March.

via Corvallis Gazette-Times

3. Oregon State

If you dive into this team’s statistical profile and watch their games, you’re bound to come away with two rock solid observations: Marie Gulich has been one of the most dominant players in college basketball, and Scott Rueck has done a wonderful job of empowering and plugging in players around Gulich to best play through her.

Per Synergy, the Beavers get a whopping 26.8% of their offense from spot ups. They run some great actions to get their best shooters open, but also leverage Gulich inside to draw multiple defenders.

The Beavers are scoring 1.11 points on nearly seven Gulich post up possessions per game. As a testament to Rueck’s play calling, his team is also scoring 1.33 points per possession on Gulich’s cuts to the basket, also via Synergy.

Oregon State loves to set Gulich and Taya Corosdale up at the elbows. Kat Tudor or Katie McWilliams will run snug off those two players out to a wing, known as an Iverson cut. The other will circle around those two down toward the basket, then come right back up to set a screen for Gulich. If Gulich’s defender is playing her snug, it’s a bucket:

Opposing coaches should scout the dirt out of this kind of stuff in a postseason setting, but it remains tough to guard because Oregon State, much like Oregon, has four capable shooters on the court at all times. Lag in getting around those screens and Tudor or McWilliams is canning a three or strolling to the rim. Lay off Gulich and she can catch it, take a dribble and bury anybody all the way under the rim as she lays it in.

Put those two pieces together and you have a team capable of scoring 111.1 points per 100 possessions, good for 11th in the country. The Beavers are among the nation’s best in a wide variety of categories — they are the most accurate three-point shooting team at 40.6% and assist on 68.3% (good for 6th) of their made field goals.

Perhaps most importantly, depending on the coach, the Beavers rebound 37.3% of their own misses. Give Oregon State extra opportunities like those and they’re one pass away from another three-pointer. As with the other positive aspects of this team, you can find Gulich right at the center of it all.

PALO ALTO, CA – DECEMBER 21: Nadia Fingall, December 21, 2017 at Maples Pavilion, Palo Alto, CA. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2. Stanford

While it’s true that Stanford hasn’t quite been at the level they were last year, much of this season should be viewed through one lens and one lens only: Brittany McPhee missed nine of their 29 games. It’s silly to get worked up over word choice especially when we spend so much time on platforms meant for brevity, but this time I am going to indulge myself.

The phrase ‘down year’ has been lazily associated with this team, a lot. Teams lose games without their best player against great opponents! What else was supposed to happen?

Since McPhee’s return, Stanford has looked like a team to be feared in March. They’ve competed with UCLA and Oregon State’s differing styles well and topped the Ducks in their lone matchup of the season.

Prediction: In order to have hopes of making a deep run in the tournament once again, Stanford is going to need to lean heavily on a lineup of McPhee, Alanna Smith, Nadia Fingall and Dijonai Carrington with Kiana Williams running the point. Kaylee Johnson is a much stronger player inside on both ends, but Fingall has already logged minutes in tight games because the team needs her shooting. Carrington has the highest ceiling of their perimeter defenders and is more of a threat to drive to the basket to score than Marta Sniezek.

Williams has been operating more with the ball in her hands. Feel free to take that with a grain of salt, considering how much time Tara VanDerveer’s team spends operating from the elbows through its post players. Plus, the ball will likely be in McPhee’s hands in crunch time.

But Williams has handled the extra ball handling duties well. As a freshman, she’s already the team’s most dangerous three-point shooter. Williams is shooting 33.6% from deep this season with 61.3% of her attempts coming from out there.

Her shooting is vital for a team that takes 36.9% of its shots from beyond the arc (68th highest in the nation) while hitting just 30.7% of them.

Stanford probably won’t go at a team mercilessly time after time with a high pick and roll like Oregon can, but they need to get settled into their offense and their guards need to be able to deliver the ball to Smith & Co. at the elbows or down on the low block. Williams has done well to take care of the ball this season, posting a 9.8% turnover rate — placing her in the 91st percentile in the country.

Stanford needs big time performances from Smith and McPhee, though Williams may be the one called upon to deliver them the ball in the right spots.

SEATTLE, WA – MARCH 02: Lexi Bando, March 02, 2017, at the Key Arena in Seattle, WA. (Photo by Aric Becker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

1. Oregon

Where does one even begin when setting out to stop one of the best offenses in the country? The Ducks have outscored their opponents by 26.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 7.9 last season.

For starters, Ruthy Hebard can’t be left to set a screen, roll to the basket then shoot over the top of a tiny, overmatched help defender. Per Synergy, Hebard is shooting 68.2% on rolls to the basket and 71.6% on cuts. She’s shooting 61.2% on postups — also a fantastic mark — but at least those situations likely force her to make a shot over a like-sized defender.

Hebard is shooting 66.6% from the field this season, a ridiculous number up from her 58.8% mark as a freshman. Also via Synergy, her usage rate (25.9% to 24.4%) and turnovers (15.3% to 11.7%) are both down. On the other side of the ball, her block rate has nearly tripled (1.8% to 4.6%) as she’s carried a larger minutes load and has played a decent amount of her minutes at center.

Without a doubt, Hebard benefits from being surrounded by three excellent three-point shooters in Sabrina Ionescu, Maite Cazorla and Lexi Bando. 6’4 freshman forward Satou Sabally rounds out the team’s most lethal offensive unit.

There is no simple tradeoff to make in slowing down the Ducks. I made the mistake in watching the UCLA-Oregon clash just over a week ago by saying UCLA should have been more willing to help off of Bando, then trust their defense to rotate and close out to shooters.

My thinking: UCLA had a better chance of scrambling to one of them. Maybe they would force an errant pass or recover in time to essentially reset the possession. The reality: Oregon would still probably get up an open three, and if Bando is shooting those open looks, she may very well shoot 7-for-9 every time she’s left open.

Per Synergy, Bando is shooting 48.5% on spot up attempts this season, netting the Ducks 1.429 points per possession. 74% of Bando’s shot attempts have come from beyond the arc this season, and she has been a 44%-plus shooter from deep in her four year career.

UCLA’s plan of attack in that game may prove to be the blueprint in guarding this team: Stick to Bando and Cazorla, the team’s two battle-tested spot up threats, then help off of Sabally when they unleash their most unstoppable weapon — a Ionescu-Hebard pick and roll with three shooters around them.

Sabally is shooting 36.3% from deep this season on 113 attempts. She shot 7-for-9 from deep at home against UCLA on mostly wide open looks. Ionescu can fire kick out passes with such speed and precision with either hand that it wouldn’t matter if that defender tried to close out to Sabally or just sat down on the baseline next to the photographers. If Sabally makes shots, are all but the top handful of teams in the nation helpless? Is Oregon so good now that everybody but UConn and Mississippi State just needs to hope that Sabally misses those looks?

In short: No. UCLA’s Lajahna Drummer had a look at a (relatively) wide open lay up that would have won that game for the Bruins in regulation.

Sabally is young, which calls for that sort of distinction between she and Bando when evaluating the two as an opponent. There are four years of data backing up the sentiment that Bando should never be left open. Cazorla is shooting nearly 40% from three and now more than half of her shots are coming from deep. Ionescu shot 42% on threes last year and is up to 44.3% this season. She incites a whole new level of panic in a defense because she’ll drill them off the bounce.

There are some insights to be drawn from Oregon’s only home loss in conference, which came at home against Stanford in the only matchup between the two teams this season. UCLA gave Oregon everything it could handle with length, ball pressure and timely shot making. Oregon State won the first installment of this season’s civil war on the backs of seven threes from Kat Tudor as Marie Gulich bludgeoned them inside.

Stanford was able to go to Oregon’s place and win with precision on the offensive end. When Brittany McPhee wasn’t ripping their defense to shreds on backdoor cuts, she got into the lane on her own and finished in the paint.

Stanford’s win was made possible by their ability to get stops and go deeper into their bench on the right night. Oregon was held under 70 points just three times in conference play — the loss to the Cardinal and in games against Arizona and Arizona State that they won comfortably.

via Oregon News Lab

Sabally shot just 1-8 from deep against Stanford. Bando also missed that game with a foot injury, a fact that should be much more than an afterthought.

Mallory McGwire is the final major piece of Oregon’s rotation that has not yet been mentioned. She’s more of a traditional center for them that can knock down the occasional midrange jumper. McGwire has attempted more than seven shots just twice all season, both occurring against Oregon State, the second Pac-12 team to have defeated Oregon in the regular season.

Marie Gulich, Oregon State’s star center, just hung out under the rim on defense to deter any potential drives and challenge Hebard at the rim. If McGwire is on the floor against that kind of scheme, she’ll be wide open every time.

If McGwire hits those shots (shot 12-20 against Oregon State this season), the Ducks are rolling. If she doesn’t and gets rattled, Kelly Graves’ rotation may get even smaller. Get just one of Oregon’s top five in foul trouble, and they also become easier to guard.

All that said, it took career nights from Kat Tudor and Brittany McPhee to top the Ducks this season, which may not be repeatable. UCLA’s defense against top flight opponents is very real, but their outside shooting has been suspect at times.

Oregon has lived up to its billing as the favorite in the Pac-12, but their sights have been set on much more than a regular season crown. If chalk wins out this weekend, the Ducks will have to get through two of those top three challengers, which will teach us a lot more about them as we look ahead to the NCAA Tournament.

The Officially Unofficial Pac-12 Regular Season Awards

Player of the Year: Marie Gulich, C, Oregon State

Defensive Player of the Year: Jordin Canada, G, UCLA

Coach of the Year: Kelly Graves, Oregon

Freshman of the Year: Kiana Williams, G, Stanford

1st Team All-Pac-12: Jordin Canada, G, UCLA; Sabrina Ionescu, G, Oregon; Brittany McPhee, G, Stanford; Ruthy Hebard, F, Oregon; Marie Gulich, C, Oregon State

2nd Team All-Pac-12: Kennedy Leonard, G, Colorado; Aliyah Mazyck, G, USC; Kristen Simon, F, USC; Monique Billings, F, UCLA; Kristine Anigwe, C, Cal

3rd Team All-Pac-12: Kiana Williams, G, Stanford; Amber Melgoza, G, Washington; Borislava Hristova, F, Washington State; Alanna Smith, F, Stanford; Kianna Ibis, F, Arizona State

All-Defense: Jordin Canada, G, UCLA; Aliyah Mazyck, G, USC; Kennedy Burke, F, UCLA; Alanna Smith, F, Stanford; Marie Gulich, C, Oregon State; Mikayla Cowling, G, Cal

All-Freshman: Kiana Williams, G, Stanford; Mya Hollingshed, F, Colorado; Satou Sabally, F, Oregon; Taya Corosdale, F, Oregon State; Michaela Onyenwere, F, UCLA

Here’s a look at the Pac-12 Tournament bracket:

The Pac-12 Tournament begins on Thursday. All games will be played at KeyArena in Seattle, Washington. The final will be aired Sunday at 9 PM EST on ESPN2. All games leading up to the final will be aired on the Pac-12 family of networks.