What: Pac-12 women's basketball Media Day special!
When: 12:00-2:00 PT, with multiple reruns over the next few days.
TV: Pac-12 Network
Did you know that basketball season officially tips off soon? Cal will be playing Vanguard as an exhibition in 10 days, and in 25 the season officially starts in Stockton against Pacific.
And you should be excited, because this will be a heavily anticipated season both for our Cal Bears as well as the rest of the Pac-12 conference. The Pac has traditionally not been a very deep conference. But with Cal and Stanford consistently great, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State building on young talent, and top 15 recruiting classes from UCLA and USC (and Cal, and Stanford), the Pac-12 is perhaps deeper and more talented than ever before.
CGB was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Pac-12 analyst (and former Stanford guard) Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Now, I know that it's verboten in these parts to offer praise to individuals and entities associated with Stanford. But I happen to think that Ms. Gold-Onwude is one of the better WBB analysts I've seen on any network, and she's uniquely qualified to discuss the Cal/Stanford dynamic, something she does with more objectivity than I'm capable of mustering.
Plus, she was really nice while dealing with question after question from me about the upcoming season. You should follow her on twitter, particularly if you're a Warriors fan.
Below you'll find quick previews for each team in the conference, in my predicted order of finish, with Ms. Gold-Onwude's insights mixed in. I did my best to make sure that all of the roster information collected below (injuries, transfers, new recruits, etc.) is accurate, but WBB news can be hard to come by. If anything is incorrect or otherwise lacking, let me know and I'll update as necessary.
Key Returners: Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray
Key Departures: Afure Jemerigbe, Gennifer Brandon
Impact Newcomers: Gabby Green, Mikayla Cowling
Two key questions: How quickly can Cal integrate two elite newcomers with the existing team? And how much better will the sophomore class be with a year of experience under their belt? If both questions are answered positively, this could be another dark horse Final Four team. A negative answer, and this is a team that will probably struggle a bit early, have to fight tooth and nail for the conference title, and risk drawing a tough road in the tournament.
For Gold-Onwude, it all starts with Brittany Boyd, a highlight of the conference and a candidate for point guard of the year. If she can improve the quality of her jump shot, and if Courtney Range can grow and take advantage of the mismatches her size and skill creates, Cal will make plenty of noise.
Key Returners: Amber Orrange, Lili Thompson
Key Departures: Chiney Ogwumike, Mikaela Ruef
Impact Newcomers: Taylor Rooks, Brittany McPhee, Kaylee Johnson
The Ogwumikes are gone, and a six year nightmare for Cal fans is finally over. Does this mean Stanford will be bad? Hardly. But they will almost certainly be vulnerable, which is a sea change.
Being a great coach is an amalgam of recruiting, strategy, player development and motivation. Tara Vanderveer is great at all of that. But this year's team is less talented/experienced than the typical Stanford team because of some recruiting misses and some bad injury luck. So if Vanderveer manages to keep Stanford amongst the elite and win another conference title, I will officially declare her a wizard.
Gold-Onwude pointed out that this will be the first guard-oriented Stanford team in quite some time, which means that their offense may look quite a bit different in terms of emphasis and execution, with more screens, picks, and perimeter action. Erica McCall may not be ready right away, but she could eventually be the next great Stanford post player.
Key Returners: Sydney Wiese, Jamie Weisner, Ruth Hamblin
Key Departures: None
Impact Newcomers: None that are likely to play immediately
The Beavers might remind you of the 2012-13 Bears - both teams didn't lose a single player to graduation, and both came off of an impressive tournament showing that ended in the 2nd round against a 1 seed. Am I saying that Oregon State is set up for a surprise conference title and Final Four run? No. But I'm not not saying it, either.
Basically, OSU is just a really good, deep, well-rounded team. They excelled last year despite injury issues, and they have lots of young players with the potential to improve quickly. If Wiese and Weisner return to their sharp-shooting ways, and Ruth Hamblin continues to provide perhaps the best post defense in the conference, the Beavers will be a force.
Gold-Onwude gave high praise to Oregon State's defense, and for good reason. Their ability to force teams to play at their pace, in the half-court set, their ability to prevent dribble penetration and force everything towards Hamblin makes for a frustrating 40 minutes.
Key Returners: Kelsey Plum, Jazmine Davis
Key Departures: Mercedes Wetmore
Impact Newcomers: Brianna Ruiz
For my money, Kelsey Plum will be the 3rd best player in the conference after Boyd and Gray (Still pending: a referrendum on Jillian Alleyne when not coached by Paul Westhead), and Jazmine Davis isn't far behind her. It's hard to find two better guards in the conference. Washington had to adapt to a new head coach and integrate plenty of new players last year, but came on strong towards the end of the season and looked posed to continue their upward trend this year. The return of Brianna Ruiz from injury could be a key difference maker.
The big question is post play. I asked Gold-Onwude if UW will have enough post play to compliment their guards, and she said that Coach Neighbors is asking himself the same question. Aminah Williams will pull down some rebounds, and the health of Katie Collier will be critical, but somebody else will have to step up. She also compared Kelsey Plum to Steph Curry in terms of shooting, body control, and craftiness, which made me sad because she was reportedly so close to coming to Cal.
Key Returners: Nirra Fields
Key Departures: Atonye Nyingifa, Thea Lemberger
Impact Newcomers: Jordin Canada, Lajahna Drummer, Recee'Caldwell, Kelli Hayes, Monique Billings
UCLA brought in the #1 recruiting class in the country, and by a pretty wide margin. Two point guards, a wing, and two forwards that are all ranked in the top 40 by ESPN. It's the first time I can recall a Pac-12 team bringing in the #1 recruiting class in the nation.
Will it result in immediate success? Gold-Onwude thinks it will take time, and that UCLA won't be an instant title contender. With five freshmen and four redshirts returning, lots of meshing will have to happen. Plus they will have to overcome a brutal non-conference schedule. I agree that the Bruins almost certainly won't win the title. But if Close can get the freshmen playing up to their ability come conference play, they will be a factor in the race with an ability to pull the upset on any given night.
Key Returners: Lia Galdiera, Tia Presley
Key Departures: Sage Romberg
Impact Newcomers: A whole slew of freshmen, including a bunch of mystery international players
The Cougars bring back lots of exciting pieces, with a great backcourt pair and a solid post player in Shalie Dheensaw. They are also bringing in seven freshmen, including four foreigners from Australia, Romania and Greece. There's strength in numbers, and I'd be willing to bet that at least one of those international players turns into a hidden gem eventually. Whether or not some will be ready to contribute right away is another question, but the Cougars are a very mysterious, intriguing team as a result.
Washington State made major strides as a program, breaking a bizarre losing streak to UW, clawing to .500 after a rough non-con schedule, and earning their first post-season spot in years, in the WNIT. With most of their core group returning, sights have to be set on returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than two decades. Can they get back? Gold-Onwude thinks it's possible, but they will need night-in, night-out production from both guards, better injury luck, and more interior production beyond Dheenshaw.
Key Returners: Jillian Alleyne, Chrishae Rowe
Key Departures: Ariel Thomas
Impact Newcomers: New head coach Kelly Graves, McKynzie Fort
The toughest team to project this year. The Ducks under Paul Westhead were impossible to evaluate because of the mind-bending stats they put up in defeat after defeat. Was he leading a team with lots of talent, but without any ability to get them to play defense? Will his players be able to score points in a more traditional offensive system?
Enter Kelly Graves, who was finally pried away from Gonzaga this off-season. He's clearly a great hire, and might have some pieces to make Oregon successful immediately. Or maybe he has a bunch of players incapable of playing a different system. I really don't know, and I'm fascinated to find out.
Gold-Onwude sounded optimistic, and pointed out that Graves is no stranger to high scoring running offenses, and won't hold the Ducks back on that side of the ball. If Graves can find a point guard, get a little less one-on-one play from Rowe, and improve the defense a tad, Oregon could be very dangerous.
Key Returners: Kelly Moos, Sophie Brunner, Promise Amukamura
Key Departures: Deja Mann
Impact Newcomers: Ayanna Edwards
I think ASU has found their new equilibrium after Charli Turner-Thorne's return from a yearlong sabbatical. They will always play rugged defense, they will always be short on players who can create their own shot, they will always be a tough out at home, and they will always finish the conference season around .500.
When I asked Gold-Onwude how ASU would replace their go-to offensive player in Deja Mann, she noted that ASU's offensive system is very team oriented, and doesn't want defenses to be able to key in on any one player anyway. Still, she identified Promise Amukamura as a player who will need to step up to fill Mann's void, and particularly show improvement in her half-court set offense.
Key Returners: Alexyz Vaioletama
Key Departures: Cassie Harberts, Ariya Crook
Impact Newcomers: McKenzie Calvert, Kristen Simon, Amy Okonkwo
On the one hand, USC brought in the 4th best recruiting class in the conference, and there's a pretty sizeable gap between 4th and 5th. On the other hand, USC lost by far their two best players from a team that just wasn't really very good last year. The loss of Crook came out of the blue, and really dampens hope of immediate contention for USC. I suspect that Cynthia Cooper will have USC competing at the top of the conference soon, but this year could be a rough transition year as talented freshmen gain experience.
When asked what Crook's unexpected departure means, Gold-Onwude responded 'opportunity for a top 15 recruiting class.' She acknowledged that USC will have to re-figure things out without by far their two best players from last year, and that it's a difficult situation. They will either need the freshmen to come up big, or for last year's role players to step up.
Key Returners: Emily Potter, Taryn Wicijowski
Key Departures: Michelle Plouffe
Impact Newcomers: Transfer Katie Kuklok
Last year, Utah just didn't have enough depth and talent to compliment the tremendous skills of Michelle Plouffe. This year, they get Taryn Wicijowski back from injury, but Plouffe is now gone. Additionally, last year's impact freshman Emily Potter recently sustained an injury that will keep her out for the season, as the scourge of the ACL continues to impact WBB.
Hope arrives in the form of Utah Valley transfer Katie Kuklok, a deadeye shooter last year. If she can form a potent inside-out combo with Wicijowski, then Utah can be dangerous, particularly at home.
Key Returners: Jen Reese, Arielle Roberson (injured), Lexy Kresl
Key Departures: Ashley Wilson, Brittany Wilson
Impact Newcomers: Brecca Thomas
Colorado was a young team last year, but had reason to be excited this year because they could build around Arielle Roberson. Unfortunately, Roberson tore her ACL and will miss the season, and as a result I have a hard time seeing Colorado improving on last year's 9th place finish.
When asked about Roberson's injury, Gold-Onwude recognized how much it would hurt Colorado's chances, and will force them to make strides towards a new identity without their leading scorer and rebounder. Can they stay competitive with a focus on Lappe's usual defensive intensity and execution? Kresl and Reese will have to be healthy and productive.
Key Returners: Candice Warthen
Key Departures: Erica Barnes
Impact Newcomers: Taryn Griffey, a few transfers
Arizona was a painful combination of bad and unlucky last year, with a variety of key players missing time due to injury. I was honestly surprised that the Wildcats brought back head coach Niya Butts after a 1-15 campaign, but she rewarded their faith with a top 25 recruiting class that includes 4 star PG Taryn Griffey. The recruiting class is very guard heavy, so expect Arizona to continue to struggle inside this year. I would be surprised if Arizona is a major factor, but the conference would love if they could at least improve on last year's 4-7 non-conference performance.