Also, when you have the chance be sure to check out this awesome interview Bear Insider did with Lindsay Gottlieb, who is clearly pretty good at being interviewed. Now, on to some Pac-12 previews and predictions:
Each of the last few years I've previewed the Pac-10/12 teams by predicting their order of finish within the conference. That's usually not very hard, especially at the top. But this year I agonized over how to choose between Cal and Stanford at the top of the conference. For the first time in since 2008-09 there's just a hint of doubt that Stanford isn't invincible.
But I couldn't do it. I don't have the courage to upset juju and however many years of history. Until Stanford is knocked off they have to get the benefit of the doubt. But I think nobody should be truly surprised if that happens this year, even if it's not the likeliest outcome. Frankly, I think there's a pretty solid chance that Cal and Stanford will finish the season tied atop the Pac-12. Although the Pac-12 is improving as a major conference, most of that improvement is coming from formerly bad teams (UW, WSU, OSU) turning into average or better teams. With the possible exception of UCLA, nobody should challenge Cal or Stanford in the standings. If the Bay Area schools split their home-and-home it could very well mean a split regular season title.
Another major storyline to follow throughout the non-conference season is how much better the Pac-12 can get. Stanford and Cal are assumed to be excellent, top 15 teams this year. But UCLA, USC, Washington, Oregon State and even Colorado brought in some excellent recruits this year. For years the inability of the conference to have any depth outside of the California schools and perhaps Arizona State has held it back. Could things finally be changing this year? Might the conference earn more than two or three NCAA bids? The possibility is there.
Key Returners: Chiney Ogwumike, Toni Kokenis
Key Departures: Nneka Ogwumike
Key Newcomers: Alyson Beebe, Tess Pinknell
It's probably wishful thinking, but I can't help but wonder how vulnerable Stanford might be this year. They relied on Nneka Ogwumike to a surprising degree, and although in all likelihood their supporting cast last year is talented enough to become a staring caste this year, there's just enough doubt for me to hope. Fool's hope, but hope!
Stanford will turn to Joslyn Tinkle and their requisite annual crop of freakishly tall recruits to replace the WNBA rookie of the year.
Key Returners: Well, everybody. Just read an earlier preview
Key Departures: Lindsay Sherbert
Key Newcomers: None
We know the Bears can rebound. We know where the scoring will come from. The biggest way for Cal to improve is likely defensively. Will Lindsay Gottlieb's new full court press provide that last little boost to turn Cal from good to great?
Key Returners: Markel Walker, Thea Lemberger, Jasmine Dixon
Key Departures: Rebekah Gardner
Key Newcomers: Nirra Fields, Lauren Holiday
Cori Close's first year was impressive in that UCLA was consistently competitive despite dealing with injuries that would have completely crippled lesser teams. With more health this year, how high can the Bruins fly? Losing Rebekah Gardner is tough, but top prospect Nirra Fields and the rest of a top 25 recruiting class will do their best to replace her production. And most importantly, Jasmine Dixon and Antonye Nyingifa are back and healthy. If the new talent mixes with the now-healthy vets, 3rd place and an easy NCAA spot would be a piece of cake.
Key Returners: Cassie Harberts, Christina Marinacci
Key Departures: Briana Gilbreath, Ashley Corral
Key Newcomers: Jordan Adams, Brianna Barrett
Although USC has an impressive front court, they're going to have to completely remake their backcourt after losing Gilbreath, Corral and Jacki Gemelos. And while that front court is impressive, it's not as good as Cal's or Stanford's. But they to bring in guard Jordan Adams, the 7th best recruit in the country. If she is as good as advertised it could go a long way towards keeping USC at the top of the conference.
5. Oregon State
Key Returners: Ali Gibson, Sage Indendi
Key Departures: Earlysia Marchbanks
Key Newcomers: Jamie Weisner, Samantha Siegner
To be honest, putting OSU this high is more a vote in favor of Scott Rueck, who recently received a well-deserved contract extension through the 2017-18 season. Rueck has lost some of the talent that helped the Beavers so stunningly over-achieve last year, but he's also brought in a top 25 recruiting class, which is borderline unbelievable. Replacing Earlysia Marchbanks is a challenge, but certainly not a bigger challenge than what he's already overcome.
6. Arizona State
Key Returners: Does coach Charli Turner-Thorne count?
Key Departures: Kimberly Brandon, Kali Bennett
Key Newcomers: Arnecia Hawkins
Ah, Arizona State. Always pesky, so rarely truly threatening. At least, that's been the case over the last four seasons. Will the return of head coach Charli Turner-Thorne coincide with a revival in Sun Devil fortunes? That will be tough without Kimberly Brandon or Kali Bennett back to anchor the paint. Also, it looks unlikely that ASU brought in any instant-impact recruits. Losing your two best scorers and rebounders makes for a bleak looking season - Arizona State's days as a consistent NCAA tournament team look done unless things change quickly. The return of two players from season-long injuries do provide hope, but the loss of Deja Mann to injury hurts.
Key Returners: Jazmine Davis, Mercedes Wetmore
Key Departures: Regina Rogers, Mackenzie Argens
Key Newcomers: Katie Collier (injured), Airashay Rogers
Led by new head coach Kevin McGuff and the offensive talents of Jazmine Davis, Washington saw a revival in their Pac-12 fortunes last year. With an excellent recruiting class coming in, the Huskies looked poised to become a player in the upper half of the conference starting this year. Unfortunately, top recruit Katie Collier (who has already overcome Leukemia) tore her ACL in August and will miss the season. She was being counted on to replace the production lost by the graduation of Regina Rogers, amongst other post talent. I was tempted to put UW ahead of ASU, but Collier's injury may limit UW's chances to rise in the standings this year. It seems only a temporary delay as McGuff very much has the program going in the right direction.
8. Washington State
Key Returners: Ireti Amojo, Sage Romberg, Carly Noyes
Key Departures: Rosetta Adzasu, Jazmine Perkins
Key Newcomers: Alexas Williamson, Emalia Galdiera
After a surprisingly successful 2010-11 season, Wazzu fell back to their usual position in the conference. The question this year is where the Cougars will find offense. Last year not a single player averaged double digit scoring, and while Wazzu's slow pace has something to do with that, it also speaks to a lack of a go-to scorer who can create her own points. Although the Cougars will still play stifling defense, their inability to score limits how much they can achieve.
Key Returners: Chucky Jeffrey, Brittany Wilson
Key Newcomers: Jamee Swan, Lauren Huggins
Like Utah, Colorado struggled in their new conference, but in a different way. Colorado has a couple of exciting talented players, but they didn't have anywhere near the depth of talent needed to compete in a major conference. With their two top scorers back and two above-average recruits on board, the hope is that the depth is now in place to move up the conference pecking order.
Key Returners: Michelle Plouffe, Taryn Wicijowski
Key Departures: Janita Badon
Key Newcomers: Danielle Rodriguez
It was a tough first year in the Pac-12 for Utah, a team full of disciplined, fundamentally solid players who were occasionally overmatched athletically in a major conference. That doesn't look likely to change this year, though returning Plouffe and Wicijowski should make Utah a dangerous team towards the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.
Key Returners: Davellyn Whyte, Erica Barnes
Key Departures: Shanita Arnold
Key Newcomers: Nyre Harris, Alli Gloyd
Arizona cratered last year without the services of Ify Ibekwe inside, and unfortunately there's not much reason to expect a different outcome this year. Until Davellyn Whyte become a more efficient scorer or the team finds some size to control the paint it's hard to envision Arizona improving much from last year.
Key Returners: Nobody that is currently healthy
Key Departures: Amanda Johnson, Jasmin Holliday, Nia Jackson
Key Newcomers: Jillian Alleyne
At this point, the Paul Westhead era at Oregon has been the most entertaining failure there has ever been. Watching Cal play Oregon has been a joy, but for whatever reason Westhead hasn't been remotely successful turning his system into actual wins. There are some talented players in Eugene, but it's a little unclear how much longer Westhead has to turn things around. Oregon has never played defense or rebounded well - but this year they don't even have much in terms of proven scorers and a few veterans are hurt. It could get ugly.