March 30, 2016

Pac-12 Parity: A Model For Women’s College Hoops

By Warren Grimes

The Washington Huskies are the Cinderella team of the tournament. Coming into the tournament as a #7 seed with 10 losses, they rolled past the number 2, 3, and 4 seeds to get to the Final 4 for the first time in program history. They did this with Mike Neighbors who is only in his third year as a Division IA head coach.

The tournament is not over yet. But you can bet heavily that the Huskies will win it all.

Oops, this is a case of Husky dyslexia. You should bet on the other Husky team — the one from the other coast — Auriemma University, or whatever it’s called.

In this Husky mixup, there are two realities about today’s women’s college basketball. On the one hand, the Pac-12 presents us with a model of parity, of upsets, of quality basketball, of excellent coaching, and of excitement that’s good for the game. On the other hand, it is likely that U Conn’s dominance will continue for the foreseeable future. That’s not the best way of generating widespread interest in the game.

The Pac-12 has had a seed-shattering showing in the tournament. With five teams in the mix, the conference is so far 14-3, and can finish no worse than 14-5. The conference would likely have had a sixth team in mix had it not been for Jillian Alleyne’s season ending ACL tear. The 14 wins have involved two upsets of number one seeds (Stanford beating Notre Dame and Oregon State downing Baylor in what was almost a home game for the Texas school). As already noted, Washington had three upset wins.

Although Washington wins the Cinderella contest, OSU has to be a close second. In six years Scott Rueck has taken that school from life support to the school’s first ever final four. Stanford should get honorable mention Cinderella status for beating a Notre Dame team that had 27 victories (losing only to U Conn) and had been widely acclaimed as the second best team in the nation.

The parity in the Pac-12, however, extends beyond these three teams. UCLA played to seed and lost a tough sweet sixteen matchup with Texas. ASU was upset in the second round, but lost to an inspired and talented Tennessee team. Overall, ASU had one of its best seasons ever and shared the Pac-12 conference title. Oregon, with an experienced NCAA-tournament coach at the helm, cannot be dismissed. California was a final four team just a few years back. And USC, despite a strange year in which its two most experienced guards were disqualified, is a team with potential and a recent conference tournament championship on its resume.

The conference race is wide open for next year. OSU loses a bunch of key players and could be competitive but probably not a favorite next year. Washington loses Walton but, with both Plum and Osahor coming back, should be a top-rated team next year. Add UCLA, a team that loses Fields but has a bevy of talented young players who will likely be better next year.

Then there’s Stanford, a team that doesn’t lose a single starter or, for that matter, any of the nine players in this year’s rotation. Add to that a very talented group of recruits and a Hall of Fame coach, and you get a team that is very likely to be competing for the title next year.

In sum, the Pac-12 is a very competitive conference, probably the best in the country. There are at least 7 conference teams that could be ranked in the top 25 next year. With its dynamism and parity, the Pac-12 could become a model for what women’s basketball should look like nationally.

But that cannot happen unless the U Conn dominance can be tamed. There is no doubt that Geno Auriemma is an excellent coach. And, although Geno can at times be a bit out of bounds, it’s not his fault that Connecticut is a dominant team. It is up to the rest of the teams to play to the U Conn standard.

That’s easier said than done. Once a coach has established program excellence, it has a huge recruiting advantage, and Geno has proven a formidable recruiter. That would be less of a problem if the pool of high school players were deeper. But good coaches can develop talent. Examples of that include Erica McCall’s evolution to excellence over the past couple of years.

The women’s tournament only had one #1 seed make the Final Four this year. That sounds more like what has long happened in the men’s tournament. Thanks to the Pac-12's upstart performance, a new element of change and competitiveness may have entered the room.

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