The 2012-13 season was a banner year for the typically maligned Pac-12. Four teams were ranked consistently throughout the season and earned high seeds come March. Even better, Stanford didn't race through the season unchallenged, as they had to split the regular season title and very nearly lost the conference tournament final. For the first time in at least four years, the Pac-12 had some depth.
Now, one year later, there's a measure of uncertainty for every team in the conference. The talent drain from last year will be harsh. Gone are stalwarts like Layshia Clarendon, Joslyn Tinkle, Chuckie Jeffery and Markel Walker. There's a pretty reasonable chance that the conference will take a step back from last year's resurgence. Will the oft-marginalized bottom half of the conference step things up to compensate for lost talent at the top?
Note: Information on injuries, transfers, and other errata are notoriously difficult to come by in women's basketball. I've done my best to track down as much up-to-date info as possible, but it's probable that I've missed something. Please forgive me, and if you have information to add or correct, just leave a comment!
Key losses: Joslyn Tinkle, Toni Kukenis
Key returners: Chiney Ogwumike, Amber Orrange
Impact newcomers: Erica McCall, Kailee Johnson
On one hand, Stanford looked vulnerable last year, and they are losing two key players from a team that wasn't nearly as deep as other Stanford teams in the past.
On the other hand, they still have Chiney Ogwumike, probably the single best player in the nation. That one fact will cover up a number of potential weaknesses. If Stanford gets contributions from their as yet unproven underclassmen, another conference title is very likely to be in the cards. If they don't, it could be another uneven year by their lofty standards, with even more uncertainty to come.
What I'm curious to see: Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike. Since time immemorial, Stanford has had one superstar after another, and always with a clear line of succession when one is about to leave. Right now, there is no heir apparent to Chiney. Will Stanford develop one this year? The freshman class might have one.
I want to pick Cal over Stanford, very badly. Both teams were basically even this year. So why pick Stanford? Well, I think Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell and Eliza Pierre are better than Joslyn Tinkle and Toni Kokenis. But realistically? These two teams are in a near dead heat.
Key losses: Layshia Clarendon, Talia Caldwell, Eliza Pierre
Key returners: Gennifer Brandon, Brittany Boyd, Afure Jemerigbe
Impact newcomers: Courtney Range, K.C. Waters
Our Bears have been covered in detail earlier. But I will say this: Cal is losing more talent than any other team in the conference. If Lindsay Gottlieb wins another conference title, tied or otherwise, it might be just as impressive a coaching performance as last year.
Still. Boyd is one of the two best point guards in the conference, and Brandon and Gray might be the best interior duo. If everybody gets and stays healthy . . .
Key losses: Kristi Kingma
Key returners: Talia Walton, Jasmine Davis, Aminah Williams, Mercedes Wetmore
Impact newcomers: Kelsey Plum, Brianna Ruiz
Lots of potential and lots of uncertainty in Washington. The Huskies looked poised to make a huge move because Kevin McDuff had brought in plenty of talent in his brief time in charge. Last year the Huskies were solid, but injuries likely prevented them from reaching their ceiling. But now, everybody is healthy and ready to play, and three ESPN top 100 recruits have arrived to fill in the gaps.
Except McDuff left for a pay raise at Ohio State.
I'll always err or the side of talent, and so I'm thinking UW will take advantage of a few teams who have lost talent from last year. If big time recruit Katie Collier is fully recovered from the knee injury that kept her out as a freshman, UW might have the missing ingredient that kept them from competing for a top 4 finish in the conference last year. Even with a brand new head coach.
Key losses: Christina Marinacci
Key returners: Ariya Crooks, Cassie Harberts, Kate Oliver
Impact newcomers: Courtney Jaco, Kaneisha Horn
Cynthia Cooper is a legendary player. Is she a good coach? That's really the question. No team has underachieved more than USC under former coach Michael Cooper, and if he's been replaced with a better coach, USC could easily take a meaningful step forward in the conference standings.
She should have good talent on hand. While the Trojans lost a solid player in Christina Marinacci, they have one of the better inside/outside duos with Crooks and Harberts both back. After that, it's a matter of getting solid contributions from role players, including Alabama transfer Kaneisha Horn, who may or may not be eligible this season. I think Cooper 2.0 can do it, at least initially.
Key losses: Markell Walker, Alyssia Brewer, Jasmine Dixon
Key returners: Antonye Nyingifa, Thea Lemberger, Nirra Fields
Impact newcomers: Dominique Williams
The Bruins lost a lot of good talent last year, and then suffered two season ending injuries to Kacy Swain and Kari Korver. The 2014 recruiting class (likely to be the best in the nation) isn't on campus yet, and so the Bruins will look to tread water behind a significantly reduced roster before the cavalry arrives.
The issue will be inside. Three of the graduates were forwards, and Kacy Swain was expected to step into the starting lineup to replace them. Will Nyingifa be able to score if she's facing constant double teams in the post? Will the Bruins get destroyed on the boards? I'm not optimistic on either question on UCLA's behalf. But Cori Close is a solid coach, and there's enough core talent to do better than 5th place.
Key losses: Chucky Jeffery
Key returners: Arielle Roberson, Brittany Wilson, Jen Reese
Impact newcomers: Haley Smith
Colorado is only losing one player. And yet, I can't help but feel that Chucky Jeffery was (with the notable exception of Chiney Ogwumike) the single most important player for her team last year. Chucky did everything - she scored, she rebounded, she passed, and she played brilliant perimeter defense.
The Buffs have a solid core of young players that will keep them competitive, but I think this year will be a mild rebuilding year for the Buffs. They'll be plenty strong inside with Jen Reese and Arielle Roberson, but who is going to get them the ball and provide scoring from the guard position? If four star freshman wing Haley Smith can provide immediate scoring, the Buffs might not drop off as much as I'm expecting.
7. Oregon State
Key losses: Patricia Bright
Key returners: Jamie Weisner, Ali Gibson, Alyssa Martin
Impact newcomers: Sydney Wiese
Last year was a rebuilding year for the Beavers and Scott Rueck, as a number of talented younger players learned on the job. If you're looking for a dark horse team, this might be a solid bet for that reason. Jamie Weisner looked pretty darn good late in the year, and she has enough talent around her to thrive as a scorer. And again Rueck has brought in a few more recruits that you wouldn't expect Oregon State to be able to pull in.
Like many teams towards the bottom of the standings, the question is if Oregon State can find secondary scorers after their star. For Oregon State, that likely means increased performances from three sophomore post players who saw limited minutes as freshmen. Ruth Hamblin, Devin Hunter and Samantha Seigner are all 6'3'' or taller and have some recruiting pedigree. If they give Weisner the support she needs, OSU could surge.
8. Arizona St.
Key losses: Janae Fulcher, Micaela Pickens
Key returners: Promise Amukamara, Joy Burke
Impact newcomers: None
The Sun Devils just haven't been able to get back on track since head coach Charli Turner-Thorne took a sabbatical. Last year was a rough season, and the Devils are losing their top scorer without bringing in much on the recruiting trail. I suspect that ASU will stay competitive by playing their usual slow style with improved defense, but just like last year they will struggle badly to score.
9. Washington St.
Key losses: None
Key returners: Lia Galdeira, Sage Romberg
Impact newcomers: Ivana Kmetovska
Lia Galdeira scored a lot last year. She also shot the ball a lot - the 5th most field goal attempts in the conference, to be specific. If she can improve her efficiency just a bit, she could be a potential all-conference pick as a sophomore, which is something people probably haven't said about anybody from Wazzu in quite some time.
Perhaps more importantly, the Cougars desperately need somebody else to step up as a scorer to take the pressure off of Galdeira. Sage Romberg was 2nd on the team in scoring . . . with just 6 points a game! Only Oregon had a weaker offense. Perhaps their new 6'3'' Macedonian recruit can provide some efficient inside scoring
Key losses: Iwalani Rodrigues
Key returners: Michelle Plouffe
Impact newcomers: None
An important note: Taryn Wicijowski, one half of Utah's excellent inside duo, is out for the season with a torn ACL. It's a horrible blow for a team that I'd have pegged for at least 7th in the conference otherwise.
Plouffe is a great player, but she's essentially the only high impact, healthy return player and that's just not enough. The 2nd leading scorer on the roster that's healthy? Cheyenne Wilson at 4 points a game. Some teams might have the depth to replace one of their best players, but that team isn't Utah. Expect Plouffe to see lots of double teams in a long, tough year for the Utes.
Key losses: None
Key returners: Jillian Alleyne, Danielle Love, Jordan Loera
Impact newcomers: Chrishae Rowe
How far can Jillian Alleyne take the Ducks? She was sensational as a freshman but got little if any support from a roster that was decimated by injury and otherwise very young.
While Paul Westhead is likely a lame Duck head coach (no pun intended) it's not like he's incapable of coaching a decent team in the Pac-12. I expect the Ducks to be more competitive this year, even if it won't result in a bunch more wins or a surge up the standings.
Key losses: Davellyn Whyte
Key returners: Kama Griffitts, Alli Gloyd, Erica Barnes
Impact newcomers: LaBrittney Jones
Last year, Arizona relied on Davellyn Whyte to score a ton of points to be competitive, and still finished 11th in the conference. They don't have that this year, and as a result it's really hard to see them keeping up. Niya Butts, like Paul Westhead, is likely surviving solely because women's basketball isn't a visible, valuable enough sport to justify buying out a contract.