Around the Pac-12: What we learned in Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 08: (L-R) Minyon Moore #23, Ruthy Hebard #24 and Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks joke around with photographers as they sit on the bench late in their 89-56 victory over the Stanford Cardinal in the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 8, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 08: (L-R) Minyon Moore #23, Ruthy Hebard #24 and Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks joke around with photographers as they sit on the bench late in their 89-56 victory over the Stanford Cardinal in the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 8, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

Lessons learned from 11 games in Vegas

Reflecting on the 2020 Pac-12 women’s basketball conference tournament and looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament for some of the league’s top contenders:

Oregon earned this

The Ducks will be my odds-on favorite to win it all in New Orleans as I fill out a bracket next week. This is hardly some bold proclamation. The same is true for my opinion that fellow projected No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Baylor are best-equipped to take them down.

Oregon is on an absolute tear, now winners of 16 straight games following one poor 10-minute stretch in Tempe back in January. Arizona is the only opponent in that span that can actually claim to have been within striking distance in crunch time. Kelly Graves loves to point out that 10 of the 16 games in this stretch were in the top 16 of the NCAA’s latest reveal and believes that ASU loss taught the team a valuable lesson.

“That game was on me,” he said postgame on Sunday. “I did a poor job. We’re up 12, seven minutes to go, I have to help us win that game, and I didn’t. I thought we played through it. These guys, although they did give up 30 points in the fourth quarter. We reminded them of that, at least on 50, 100 occasions? But I think it really did motivate us. I watched that game a lot after, and just, you know, we went through the motions.

“And I think from then on we determined that’s not going to happen again. We will not not play hard. And they got the message and have continued to do it. Again, I credit this senior class. These guys, I’ll tell you, it’s a pretty damn good group. They’re fun to coach and fun to be with each and every day.”

Baylor has a real case beyond being the defending champs. But the Big 12 simply isn’t as good as the Pac-12 at the top right now, making it tougher to say with absolute confidence that they’re on the same footing as Oregon. South Carolina has a much better case thanks to a bigger number of high-quality opponents, most of whom they’ve beaten handily, too.

The postseason experiences of Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, two of the 10 best players in the country, matter as we make these predictions. Getting crushed by UConn as freshmen, getting eliminated by the eventual champs two years in a row, then seeing Ionsecu choose to return for her senior season? That’s so much more than some dreaded narrative. All of those experiences have sharpened them for these next three weeks.

South Carolina’s Ty Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan have championship experience. But the remainder of their starting group consists of true freshmen. In part, that’s what makes the expected seeding at the top—with Baylor and Oregon on a Final Four collision course and South Carolina on the other side of the bracket—so compelling.

A rematch from last season leading up to a date with two members of that 2017 title team and that tremendous freshman class ready to do so much more than take their lumps in year one? I don’t care where your allegiances lie. As much as we love upsets, seeing all chalk in New Orleans is an easy outcome to root for.

What it means to be No. 2

I’m really tempted to just call Arizona the second-best team in the Pac-12. It’s much easier to do so with them sitting on a three line in Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology. They’d be on a path very similar to Stanford, my actual choice, and avoid a No. 1 seed for one more round if that projection holds.

Arizona has the best player. Both teams defend at an extremely high level. I still trust, say, options two through four on Stanford a tad more and give them a slight personnel edge defensively. But while both groups got three cracks at Oregon, Arizona gets to plant that flag as the last team to really push the Ducks 35-plus minutes into a game.

One-game samples can’t ever tell the full story, but I’ll be fascinated to see the non-Oregon Pac-12 elites run into the likes of Mississippi State, Louisville, NC State or Northwestern. What will qualify as a ‘win’ for the ‘Pac-12 is the best and it isn’t even close’ crowd?

The UCLA house of cards

Let’s not do the thing where we fawn over UCLA as a Final Four dark horse that nobody wants to play. Not this season. Jordin Canada, Kennedy Burke and Monique Billings aren’t walking through that door. I don’t want to play Arkansas. I really don’t want to play Kentucky. I really, really don’t want to play Arizona. UCLA? Bring ‘em on!

Even with the 2-1 record against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford, I don’t even agree that they deserve much praise for ‘making the most’ of their favorable break this season with the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule. Aren’t they knocking on the door of that fourth No. 1 seed if they make two more plays against USC and take care of business against ninth-place UW?

The Bruins, whose 100.5 points per 100 possessions rank 40th nationally per Her Hoop Stats, are a total paper tiger offensively against any team that can just stay in the picture against Michaela Onyenwere.

As I argued in my awards piece, I really think coaches and media missed the boat on the importance of Charisma Osborne’s production. She has been the only reliable 3-point shooter on a team that needs to play through Onyenwere (and for some reason also post Lauryn Miller and Chantel Horvat up with a similar sense of urgency). Japreece Dean has not been a steady No. 2 scorer and is shooting just 25.6 percent from deep after finishing at 35.2 percent on a similar number of attempts last season.

I don’t think their team 3-point percentage of 28.4 percent is totally reflective of the shooting talent on their roster, but Cori Close hasn’t exactly empowered some of the leading candidates (Natalie Chou, Lindsey Corsaro) to keep firing away.

UCLA will string three wins together and run into those No. 1 seeds in the Elite Eight if they draw enough attention away from the paint to make Onyenwere’s life a little bit easier. Future opponents will have learned a ton from Saturday’s semifinal against Stanford. When you pack the paint and force UCLA’s star to make a bunch of contested 18-footers if she wants to hang 30 on you, will the Bruins make enough shots and find any kind of flow around her?

Time for OSU to prove it

I’ve been bullish on the Beavers throughout this trying, injury-riddled season and saw plenty of positives in their third matchup with Stanford. (Anyone that’s been critical of OSU is probably overlooking UCLA’s flaws and underrating Arizona.) If Destiny Slocum strings together efficient 20-plus scoring nights and Taylor Jones just manages to stay on the floor, I still believe that Oregon State can give anyone in the field a run for their money.

But now they have to go prove it. Let’s be fair.

They’re still projected to nab a No. 4 seed. Go win two home games and at least submit a strong showing in the Sweet 16. There’s no reason to be overly critical if they can get that far. Related: Is Fort Wayne even a remote possibility? Maryland isn’t some pushover as the fourth No. 1 seed, but independent of matchups and the like, I’d rather run into the Terps than one of the other top seeds.

USC’s springboard opportunity

The comparisons to Arizona’s 2018-19 season are sitting right there. As the conference roots for multiple teams to make the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four, a strong run in the WNIT for USC would be a big win for the ‘middle’ of the league. Endyia Rogers and Alissa Pili can flat out score. Two really talented scorers can take you a long way in that setting.

USC caught some tough brakes health-wise this season. Better luck on that front, new additions and some internal growth could get Mark Trakh’s squad in the bubble conversation as soon as next season. Racking up a few wins in the WNIT would give them even more momentum heading into the offseason.

The Crocker & Green Show

ASU really dropped the ball this weekend. They failed to put Cal away after leading by 11 with 12 minutes remaining. The Golden Bears finished the third quarter on a 13-0 run and scored the first seven points of the fourth. Jazlen Green and Cailyn Crocker combined for seven of their eight made field goals in the second half. Jaelyn Brown and those two freshmen guards scored 56 of the team’s 71 points.

Crocker hit one of my favorite shots of the tournament.

That’s a gutsy play! No, Alaysia Styles, I do not want a screen. I know that I can pull back and drill this shot over Taya Hanson as the shot clock expires to put us up by nine. 

I won’t pretend to know right now what Cal’s actual ceiling might be for the 2020-21 season. They have four top-100 recruits inked from this 2020 class. Will the makeup of next year’s team require these kinds of plays from Green and Crocker? That’s TBD. But making those plays on a big stage against an NCAA Tournament team to spearhead a second-half comeback? That has real value.

  • More Pac-12 tournament coverage:

Day 1 notebook

Day 2 notebook

Day 3 notebook

Day 4: Oregon dominates Stanford in Pac-12 title game

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