Around the Pac-12: burning questions, predictions for the 2019-20 season

Addressing big questions in Pac-12 women’s basketball at the start of the 2019-20 season

You may have to pay extra or sign up for yet another streaming service to make it possible, but know that you won’t regret tuning in for the level of play and competition sure to be on display this season in the world of Pac-12 women’s basketball.

As the college basketball season officially begins, let’s take a look at some of the big-picture questions facing the three biggest contenders atop the conference and have some fun with some predictions.

In case you missed it, Kim Doss has you covered with a team-by-team Pac-12 conference preview.

What will Stanford and Oregon State do with Ruthy Hebard? 

Hebard still might be a tad underrated nationally. Take a hard look at what it might take for somebody to beat the Ducks this season. Those considerations probably need to start and end inside. (Apparently, we’ve decided that she’s a power forward when it comes to awards voting?)

Nearly half of the 482 possessions used by Hebard last season were post-ups according to Synergy Sports. She shot 62.2 percent out of the post and scored to the tune of 1.14 points per possession. Megan Gustafson (1.31 PPP, 411 possessions) and Teaira McCowan (1.18 PPP, 220 possessions) were the only high volume post scorers that surpassed Hebard’s overall efficiency.

Most teams won’t even have a starting center that stands a chance one-on-one. Things get interesting when we narrow this discussion down to Oregon’s two most likely Pac-12 challengers.

Oregon State would probably need one of their heralded freshman bigs to grow into that role—possible but not likely.

Stanford can throw Alyssa Jerome, Maya Dodson and Nadia Fingall at Hebard, who’s been in the high 60s/low 70s as a free throw shooter to date. The Cardinal will have plenty of feasible options to stay big even if she gets them into some foul trouble.

Expect both teams to be in a different headspace in how they look to defend Oregon than most potential/future opponents, who are likely to resort to a zone out of sheer necessity. If not, they’ll cede open 3-pointers by the dozen as the Sabrina Ionescu-Hebard duo works its magic.

Giving an opponent different looks toggling between zone and man-to-man is nothing more than word dressing at times. The Stanford and Oregon State matchups are so intriguing in part because both teams should be effective enough throwing either look at the nation’s most dangerous offense.

The great bargain for Tara VanDerveer and Scott Rueck will then point down to the other end. One thought exercise: Would Stanford be giving anything up defensively playing Haley Jones primarily as a 4 against the Ducks?

A question like that then branches off to create dozens more. How much would that actually hurt their defense? How much better would it make their offense? For the Beavers, one could start with the same question swapping Mikayla Pivec for Jones once Kat Tudor (knee) gets back up to speed.

Thankfully, the Pac-12 scheduling gods gave us two matchups between the Bay Area and Oregon schools for Ionescu and Hebard’s senior season. (The basketball gods, meanwhile, deserve our scorn with Nyara Sabally expected to miss a second season due to injury.)

Oregon makes teams extremely uncomfortable. Their offense has been a joy to watch as the program made its climb to where they stand now as the No. 1 ranked team to start a season. With Ionescu back for her senior year, we’ll eagerly await to see just how dominant this Oregon group can be, and which teams will be able to truly challenge them along the way.

What does Scott Rueck’s center rotation look like in March? 

Postseason play is a long way out. Seeing the Beavers learn about their options up front will be one of the season’s most interesting subplots.

Here’s a contender for the understatement of the year: Rueck and his staff have options, including true freshmen Taylor Jones, Kennedy Brown and Jelena Mitrovic; veterans Madison Washington and Janessa Thropay; redshirt freshman Andrea Aquino; sophomore Patricia Morris; and even starting 4 Taya Corosdale, who logged some minutes at the 5 last season.

Brown and Jones started in tandem in their exhibition against Team USA with Corosdale nursing a minor injury. If Brown is consistently knocking down shots, she and Corosdale could cover all 40 minutes at the 4 to keep four shooting threats on the floor at all times—one way in which they could become even more potent offensively after posting a top-15 offensive rating (109.9) last season per Her Hoop Stats.

Naturally, Corosdale and Brown become an interesting potential 4/5 pairing. And as mentioned above, Oregon State’s most dangerous lineup may feature their four best guards (Pivec, Tudor, Destiny Slocum, Aleah Goodman) and a big.

Who will be that fifth player, how much will we see that group, and would it hold up well enough defensively for long stretches against elite competition?

For now, Rueck has nothing but time. Each option brings something to the table. Differing opponent styles will dictate some matchups. As constructed, the Beavers are already a really good team as the season officially tips off on November 5.

The scary part for the rest of the field? They feel like a lock to be even better just by the start of league play, slowing building toward March and a trip to New Orleans.

Where will Stanford get its shooting from? 

In Alanna Smith, the Cardinal graduated 22 percent of the 2018-19 team’s 3-point attempts and 25 percent of their made triples. The loss of Shannon Coffee shouldn’t be undersold, either, as she gave them a rare combination of size around the rim and facilitating from the elbows/top of the key with a little bit of stretch to her game, too.

Enter Ashten Prechtel, one of the four incoming freshmen that may ultimately leave the biggest imprint on this year’s team if she has enough pull as a standstill threat. Whether Dodson and Fran Belibi carve out big roles attacking their base matchups or not, the offense as a whole will take off if they can keep an extra defender out of the lane.

Jerome and Fingall may take a step forward as floor spacers, but neither has attempted more than 40 triples in a season. Jones or even DiJonai Carrington getting some time as the nominal 4 could open the floor up, too.

If we consider Jones more of a wing for the sake of this discussion, Prechtel is the most likely big to emerge as the kind of shooting threat that teams really have to stick to on the perimeter.

That presence will make their off-ball screening and movement much more difficult to guard. Helpers will need to cover more ground to erase stuff at the rim then sprint back out with even more urgency to scramble from that point out to the open shooters.

Will the Cardinal lean big or small against the best teams? 

Zooming out some from the question posed earlier for Oregon State, I think the best way to put this is to say that the Beavers face more mystery and uncertainty while the Cardinal face more pure tradeoffs.

Dodson is the most intimidating shot-blocker outside of Waco. Caveats aside, staying big will help them on the glass. But Kiana Williams and Carrington are playing big minutes. Both Hulls will also need to play. Perhaps Hannah Jump will play well enough to earn some serious run.

The lure of Jones at the 4 feels like the biggest factor. Every team wants to be really hard to guard. That move turns the dial all the way up.

Belibi even got some reps defending Team USA’s bigs. What she actually is on offense in year one remains to be seen, but could we even see her command some minutes as a 5 if she develops as a threat to blow by or facilitate from the top of the key?

A prediction: the quartet of Williams, Carrington, Jones and a Hull will be too good to take off the floor against any opponent when we get deep into March, and that’s the last you’ll see of this sort of talk in this space.

The Cardinal are too talented up and down the roster, capable of shapeshifting from game to game or quarter to quarter, not to enjoy each stop along the way.

Which three-guard looks will we see from the Bruins? 

Let’s get really fun. How much will Japreece Dean, Jaden Owens and Charisma Osborne play together? Could a three-headed point guard attack surrounding Michaela Onyenwere become UCLA’s best path forward to force opponents into impossible decisions?

Even if that specific trio doesn’t materialize, getting two capable creators firing on all cylinders will once again make them one of the nation’s leading ‘I Really Don’t Want to Draw Them As a Sweet 16/Elite Eight Opponent’ teams.

Cori Close has spoken glowingly of freshman forward Brynn Masikewich. But in addition to the three guards mentioned, UCLA’s perimeter depth should be one of the big strengths of this team.

To name a few: Lindsey Corsaro is one of the league’s better two-way guards/wings. Chantel Horvat is back after a bit of a lost year due to injury. Baylor transfer Natalie Chou is now eligible to enter the mix. Kiara Jefferson had some really impressive stretches as a freshman, especially with her defense at the point of attack.

Onyenwere now enters year two as a primary scoring option. An interesting thing about her game, though, is that I don’t think swinging between the 3, 4 and 5 spots would noticeably impact her game. She can rise and pull over anybody and is strong enough to shrug off guards that’ll have the quickness to slide with her on a drive.

That flexibility to Onyenwere’s game really helps the Bruins as they enter a season with plenty of pieces they’ll want to see around her.

How much help did Arizona find for Aari McDonald? 

Last season, 946 Arizona possessions ended with an Aari McDonald shot, drawn foul or turnover—the highest total in the country. (Only six players used more than 800 possessions; 43 used more than 700.) The electric point guard had the nation’s second-highest usage rate per Her Hoop Stats.

Coming off a WNIT championship, the Wildcats have their sights set on an NCAA Tournament berth. We’ll find out in 2019-20 just how much help (and internal growth among returnees) they managed to get for McDonald and if found, what that might mean for the team when she can shift some of her energy elsewhere.

McDonald was already one of the most disruptive guards in the country pestering a ball-handler or attacking passing lanes with her anticipation and quickness.

If she feels less of a burden to create shots off the bounce this season, it should become easier to lead the charge for the entire team to take defense more personally each time down the floor, not to take a shot at their performance last season (87.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, approaching the 80th percentile nationally). Who wouldn’t want to improve their defense?

Finding more spot-up shooting is their white whale. McDonald is impossibly quick attacking seams. This team wouldn’t need to do anything more than give her the ball from a dead stop to regularly collapse defenses.

Sam Thomas shot 33 percent on 159 3-point attempts from deep last season. Dominique McBryde, Tee Tee Starks and Lucia Alonso each shot 40-plus percent in league play on 31, 28 and 30 attempts, respectively.

Somebody (newcomers included) will need to turn up the volume if the vision to spread it out and have McDonald attack the rim and spray it out to open shooters is going to perform to a level high enough to get them to the Big Dance.

How high is Utah’s offensive ceiling with two dynamic frontcourt threats out the door? 

Oregon’s loaded offensive attack has really spoiled us. Let’s not forget just how dynamic the Megan Huff/Dre’una Edwards frontcourt pairing was last season.

Huff was a massive pick and pop threat and shot 37 percent from deep overall on more than four attempts per game. She also worked quickly to drag smaller players down into the post when opponents opted to switch and ate them alive.

Edwards, all while attempting a single 3-pointer all season, was a total nightmare in any 4- or 5-out look. She could grab and go to lead the break or speed by fellow bigs from a dead stop near the top of the key.

Sadly, the Utes only got one season (interrupted by some Edwards shoulder troubles) with the pairing. Huff graduated and Edwards transferred to Kentucky.

Flipping any Utah game on, you’ll see that Lynne Roberts has something really special brewing with what they’re doing offensively—mercilessly running at every opportunity, maintaining their spacing throughout entire possessions and games and identifying talent to plug into the right roles to succeed.

With such a devastating combo up front now gone, they may face the most pressure of the league’s NCAA Tournament hopefuls. The Utes will need to answer questions about where their offense will come from in close games and hit the ground running in Pac-12 play, beating the teams they should while maximizing their chances to bank a signature win or two to solidify their case.

Which duo—USC’s Stephanie Watts and Angel Jackson, Washington’s Amber Melgoza and Darcy Rees, Washington State’s Chanelle Molina and Borislava Hristova—leads their team to more wins?

I gravitated toward the other two duos in wondering what Washington State will be able to accomplish as Bobi Buckets and Chanelle Molina kick off their senior campaigns. They’re incredibly easy to root for, both wonderfully skilled offensive players that can really tie any opponent in knots, especially working together in any two-player action.

Meanwhile, the UW and USC duos have a similar dynamic: an experienced scoring guard with a talented young big.

These three pairings shouldn’t be judged solely on how many wins they rack up. What they have around them matters. But in trying to get a feel for the five teams expected to finish near the bottom, these six names—how well they’ll perform and how the rest of the league will approach matchups with them—stood out most.

Predictions

Who’s their best five?

Just for kicks. Rules are simple. It’s a close game deep in the NCAA Tournament. Who do you want/expect to see on the floor for these three national title contenders? Here’s a preseason attempt at answering that question.

Oregon: Sabrina Ionescu, Minyon Moore, Satou Sabally, Erin Boley, Ruthy Hebard

Stanford: Kiana Williams, DiJonai Carrington, Lexie Hull, Haley Jones, Maya Dodson

Oregon State: Destiny Slocum, Aleah Goodman, Mikayla Pivec, Taya Corosdale, Kennedy Brown

There’s no doubt the three weekends these teams play each other will be circled on our calendars. It’ll be fascinating to see how these stretches play out a few months from now.

As this is being written, a decision has not been announced on Sedona Prince. Without writing off the ability of someone else to enter this group, Oregon’s blend with this five just feels right.

Sabally is a tantalizing pro prospect. Boley’s versatility as a shooter unlocks so much. She can run off screens, shoot comfortably from well behind the line and can pick and pop with Ionescu for open treys.

As long as they rebound well, I’ve never been all that concerned about the Ducks needing to make some huge leap defensively. Their core groups will still be big and long. Moving the ball is really tough to do when they sit back in a zone. But Moore can still add a lot of value as a bit of a culture-setter on that end and have a heavy hand in helping speed teams up and forcing more turnovers.

Belief in that specific Stanford group has been explained above. Seeing the awards predictions below will explain why Dodson was the fifth player for now.

I think the extra size ultimately gives the Beavers a slight edge over a potential four-guard look. As mentioned, Brown’s shooting will be important to monitor throughout the season. This group could have two capable pick and pop partners. More importantly, the other one could then space out to clear the lane for Slocum making a beeline for the front of the rim.

Season-end awards

Player of the Year: Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon

Freshman of the Year: Haley Jones, Stanford

Defensive Player of the Year: Maya Dodson, Stanford

NCAA Tournament teams

Six (Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State)

Predicted final regular-season standings

Oregon

Stanford

Oregon State

Arizona

UCLA

Arizona State

Utah

Washington

Washington State

USC

Cal

Colorado

Before you go…

Check back every Tuesday here on High Post Hoops, where this Pac-12 column will be a weekly fixture.

No, not every team was covered this time around. Know that will be the exception and not the rule. That will be rectified once the games start.

The goal here is simple: Provide a weekly, comprehensive look at every team in the conference—no tapering off on teams that drift toward the bottom of the standings.

Please share this column with anybody you know that’d be interested in following what’s sure to be the best conference in the country this season. (Who wouldn’t?) And feel free to reach out on Twitter with questions, concerns, comments and ways you’d like to see the Pac-12 covered this season.

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