Improved Pac-12 means opportunity, challenge for Cal WBB

The Pac-12 looks tough, but I'd wager the Bears aren't intimidated. - Lance Iversen/USA TODAY Sports

Would you believe that the Pac-12 is ranked 1st in the nation in conference RPI? Believe it!

You might recall that I was pessimistic about the general state of Pac-12 women's basketball heading into the year. With major talents like Layshia Clarendon, Chuckie Jeffry, Markel Walker and Joslyn Tinkle gone, I expected every single tournament team from last year to take a step back, and I wasn't convinced that the non-tournament teams would be ready to take a step forward to compensate.

With the non-conference season complete, where does the conference stand? On my firmer ground than I anticipated (numbers accurate as of Thursday night):

Team

RPI

Strength of Schedule

RPI top 100 wins

Stanford

3

3

Boston College, Texas, Purdue, SDSU, Gonzaga, Tennessee

Arizona St.

8

21

Hawaii, North Carolina, Long Beach St., Miami, Syracuse

Colorado

14

69

Iowa

California

16

12

Long Beach St., Northwestern, Lafayette

UCLA

34

4

Oklahoma, Grand Canyon, Minnesota

Oregon

38

128

Princeton

Oregon St.

46

34

Sacramento State, Hawaii

USC

55

37

Boston College, Long Beach State, Hawaii

Washington St.

68

26

Nebraska

Washington

83

79

Wisconsin

Utah

161

229

BYU

Arizona

229

170

None


To be honest, I'm not sure how many of those currently top 100 wins will stand up. Teams like Grand Canyon, Long Beach State, Lafayette and Hawaii all stand a pretty decent chance of falling in the rankings. But every single team in the conference except for Arizona and Utah managed to do two things:

1. Schedule tough
2. Avoid bad losses

Really, that's a pretty simple and reliable formula for RPI success but it's something most teams in the conference have struggled with. And even injury riddled Utah, with their weak schedule, managed to avoid any truly bad losses. For the past . . . well, decade, really . . . the Pac-12 has had three or four truly bad teams in the conference, teams that hurt a computer profile just by playing them. There's only one team like that this year, and that's a huge step forward for everybody else.

The Pac-12 has the highest strength of schedule in the nation as a conference, and not coincidentally has the nation's top RPI as a conference. Mathematically speaking, you could argue that Cal plays in the toughest conference in the country this year. At the moment, seven Pac-12 schools are in the RPI top 50, and USC is knocking on the door. Those teams will be playing each other the rest of the way, as the RPI becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is all great news for Cal's hypothetical tournament resume.

Just look at those strength of schedule numbers! More than half of the conference is ranked in the top 37! Sure, UCLA took six losses, but none of them were to a team outside the top 100. Every single team played at least one game against a legitimate team, and nearly every school got at least one legitimate win. Prior to the beginning of the season, I was actually pleased that Cal didn't have to play Oregon more than once, but as it turns out the Ducks could be a decently valuable win this year.

Let's talk about some of the teams that have been the most surprising and/or interesting:

Oregon

The schedule is a little on the weak side as compared to the rest of the conference, but the Ducks look like they should at least be a solid, middle-of-the-conference team this year. And that's saying something after last year's debacle. They have already won seven games by 20 points or more. What has changed? It looks like Paul Westhead has found the best freshman in the conference for the 2nd year in a row in guard Chrishae Rowe, and she has partnered with Jillian Allyne to form a potent inside/outside combo.

The Ducks are still playing lightning fast, but this time they pace is actually working to their advantage. With great ball handling and rebounding numbers, they're 14th in the nation in points/possession. There's going to be skepticism until the Ducks beat a major conference opponent (i.e., an above average Pac-12 team). We'll see if those numbers stand up to conference play, but it's already a quantum leap from last year.

Arizona State

I was skeptical that Charli Turner-Thorne could turn things around at all, let alone this year. The Sun Devils had floundered badly since she took her coaching sabbatical, and her preferred style of play never got me excited anyway. But the healthy return of Deja Mann and a few new freshmen have catapulted Arizona State into the national rankings. They took down a tough Syracuse team on Monday night and looked plenty good in the process.

There's no one thing that has caused ASU's revival - no single player, no obvious statistical outlier. The Devils are playing better defense, they're playing better offense, and they currently have a resume that suggests they're the 2nd best team in the conference. The Tempe trip will be a major pain this year.

Stanford

Cal fans were wondering if the departure of Joslyn Tinkle and Toni Kokenis without obvious replacements might result in a sub-par year for Stanford, relative to their usual 30 win expectations. And I'm happy to report that none of the new Stanford players have stepped up in a major way yet. Only Chiney Ogwumike and Amber Orrange are averaging more than 6.9 points/game or shooting above 43% from the field.

But here's the thing: Chiney Ogwumike is the best player in the country, and I will broach no argument otherwise. With even less support than she had last year she has upped her points/game and is shooting a higher percentage from the field. She will do everything in her power to drag Stanford to another conference title. If anybody other than UConn can figure out how to defend her, the Cardinal will be in deep deep trouble.

Last year, Stanford was only really challenged in the conference by Cal and UCLA. With a deeper, improved Pac-12, is there any way the Cardinal go 17-1 again?

Previewing Oregon State


Cal starts off conference play tonight against the Beavers, then get the Ducks at noon on Sunday. When the season began, this seemed like a pretty calm introduction to conference play. And while I still think that Cal is the favorite in both games, it's not nearly as straightforward a weekend as it appeared to be back in October. I talked a bit about the Ducks above and I'll have more info on Sunday, so for now let's look at Cal's opponent tonight at 8:00 on the Pac-12 Networks: Oregon State

The Beavers have played a tough schedule, and while they didn't record any seismic upsets, they proved their mettle. Close losses to Penn State, Florida, Creighton and Notre Dame are probably frustrating for Scott Rueck and company, but the Beavers took care of business against the mostly decent mid-majors that made up the rest of their schedule. Between tough early season tests and a close loss in Haas last year, this is a team that will come to Berkeley believing they can pull the upset . . . and they might not even think of it as an upset anyway.

Let's dive into the stats (numbers below are conference and national rank, respectively):

SHOOTING EFFICIENCY BALL CONTROL DEFENSE REB/BLK

FG%

2FG%

3FG%

eFG%

PPWS

FT%

True%

Pos/40

O-PPP

D-PPP

Floor%

TOPG

TORt

APG

A/TO

A/B%

FG%

2FG%

3FG%

TOF

OppTR

RPG

Reb%

BPG

FPG

45.8
4/32

45.5
7/101

38.6
2/23

50.5
2/30

1.06
5/47

64.1
9/268

53.4
5/50

75.2
5/144

0.987
6/59

0.824
5/56

38.8
6/83

17.7
11/220

23.1
10/227

19.8
1/10

0.942
5/96

63.0
3/58

34.6
2/23

37.2
2/27

24.1
1/6

12.7
11/327

16.0
11/340

45.7
2/8

56.1
3/47

6.5
1/8

20.0
5/189


In terms of rough efficiency, OSU is solid both offensively and defensively without being outstanding in either category. Their offense has excellend in part because they're shooting lights out from behind the line, so Cal either needs to focus on perimeter defense or hope that they cool off. Conversely, teams aren't shooting well on OSU's defense, particularly from 3 point range. Granted, opponent 3 pt% tends to be random variation, but Cal likely isn't the team to help OSU revert to the mean.

OSU's defense doesn't trap or force turnovers - they're all about staying in front of you, contesting every shot, and pulling down every defensive rebound. So far this year they've been reasonably successful. Cal hasn't been the same team on the offensive glass this year, and I wouldn't expect Gen Brandon to be playing major minutes yet, so it's going to be about hitting shots tomorrow. Which, to be fair, is what it's going to be about all season.

OSU is another deep team that likes to substitute frequently. Leading scorer Jamie Weisner (who, you'll recall, almost single-handedly ruined Cal's Pac-12 title last year) is averaging 15 points/game in only 26 minutes, and she's been absolutely deadly from three. She and Sydney Weise combine to average nearly six made 3s a game, so the pressure will be on Cal's guards to shut them down.

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