March 06, 2023

The Pac-12: The Nation's Best WBB Conference, But Is There a Dominant Team?


Warren Grimes

The Pac 12 is the best WBB conference in the land, but with a major question mark.  There is talent, depth, and balance in the conference.  That was illustrated by the recently completed topsy turvy conference tournament.  Here are some of the difficult-to-get-your-head-around facts of that tournament.

Of the 11 games played in the tournament, 7 were won by the lower seed (that’s 63% of the games)

Counting only the 7 games played starting with the quarter finals, 5 of those games were won by the lower seed (that’s 71% of the games).

Stanford did not make the final.  That’s not unprecedented, but it is unusual.

Stanford was not alone.  None of the other top 4 seeds made the final.

Seeded number 7, Washington State was the lowest seed to make the final and the lowest to win the tournament.

The champion team, Washington State, has never (as in never-ever) defeated Stanford in WBB.

In the first tournament game, the lowest seed in the tournament, Arizona State, took finalist UCLA to overtime before bowing to the Bruins.

Conference Co-Champions Stanford and Utah collectively lost 2/3 of the 3 tournament games they played.


All of this suggests balance in the league.  And the out-of-conference records of these teams suggest their relative superiority over other conferences.  But is there a dominant team in the conference capable of winning it all?

If there is such a team, a prime candidate would be Stanford.   But Stanford lost 2 of the last 3 games it played, hardly an indicator of dominance.  And Utah, in the conference tournament, couldn’t get beyond its game-one loss to number-7 seeded Washington State.

All of this presents intriguing questions for the upcoming NCAA tournament.  I expect the Pac-12 to do quite well in representation (7 or 8 teams?).  And these teams should do well in the first 2 or 3 rounds.  But will any of them make the Final Four?  The Pac 12 could plausibly land 3 teams in the Final 4, but it could also end up not sending anyone.  The up and down performances of every one of the conference’s teams makes one pause.

As for Stanford, the season-ending games exposed vulnerabilities that last season’s team did not have.  This year’s Stanford team lost three of its late season starters with the graduation of the Hull twins and Anna Wilson.  Collectively, those three players provided last year’s team with 28.4% of its points, 41% of its three pointers, and an impressive 58% of its steals.

Four different players have stepped in to fill most of the minutes played by last year’s triumvirate.  They are Lepolo, Demetre, Emma-Nnopu, and Iriafen.  Collectively, playing slightly fewer minutes than last year’s graduated trio, these replacements have put up roughly the same number of team points (28.4%), but fewer of the team’s 3-pointers (37%) and a lot fewer of the team’s steals (30%).  Of these four players, only one (Lepolo) is averaging over 20 minutes per game.  Demetre, Emma-Nnopu and Iriafen are all in the 12 to 14 minute range (so is Nivar).  That could mean amazing depth.  Less optimistically, it means that the coaching staff has not found a player that consistently contributes and scores the way last year’s trio did.  Although each of the four replacement players has had very productive offensive games, none so far can consistently and productively occupy the fifth spot on the floor.     

When you compare this year’s with last year’s stats, the current team is shooting free throws much better, is averaging a few more points per game, and also has the edge in field goal shooting percentage (thanks to the “B” players – Brink, Betts, and Belibi – all shooting near or above a 50% rate).  Last year’s team was shooting threes a bit better, had a substantially higher average of steals (3 more per game) and had a more consistent record that brought them both an undefeated conference season and a conference tournament championship.  One reason for last year’s success is that Lexie was a creative and effective inside-outside scorer (third highest on the team) while her sister and Anna Wilson were threats from the three-point line.   Collectively, those three players were averaging 37% from three-point land.  Wilson proved extremely deadly from distance in tournament play.  Any team that based its defense on sagging to the middle would pay a heavy price. 

To get to the Final Four, Stanford must find someone other than the big three (Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, and Hannah Jump) to be a consistent offensive threat.  Probably that player must show inside-outside scoring ability to make a sagging offensive team pay the price.  Indeed, impressionistically, the comparison of this season with last season leads to this: last year Stanford excelled at perimeter guard offense.  This year’s team, with the addition of Butts, has superior inside play, but probably needs improved perimeter play from the guards to have a chance to win it all.

Stanford can still be a dominant team, but it must prove it.

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