SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Pac-12 won’t catch anyone by surprise anymore. Not with the way conference teams shined on the national stage yet again.
Coaches and players throughout the Pac-12 knew well before last spring’s NCAA Tournament that they had one of the most talented conferences in the country.
Then, Stanford edged Arizona by a single point in the NCAA championship game, 54-53. The Pac-12 plans to represent in March again, with No. 3 Stanford leading the way in the program’s title defense and Oregon also in the AP Top 25 at No. 10. Three others are in the poll, too.
Stanford captured its first championship since 1992 and third ever last season, a remarkable finish to a season in which the Cardinal spent nearly 10 weeks away from campus given restrictions in Santa Clara County banning sporting events and practices because of COVID-19.
“Last year feels a little bit like a blur,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “But we got through a lot, and congratulations to the Pac-12 to have two teams in the championship game and six teams in the tournament. And we’re going to be greedy, go for more next year.”
Sixth-year Arizona coach Adia Barnes is challenging her team not to relish that runner-up finish given how good the Pac-12 still is and how hard it will be to get back there and triumph this time.
“It doesn’t feel any different,” she said. “I know that people are like, ‘Oh, it was a magical run,’ but it is what it is. That’s last year. The reality is we didn’t win. It was great to get there but our standards are just really high. Now that they’ve had a taste of success they’re just really hungry for more.”
Coach Kelly Graves has guided Oregon to four straight Sweet Sixteen appearances. Now, Nyara Sabally — Oregon’s leading returner — can’t wait to play in front of home fans for the first time.
“They’ve never seen any of our team play live yet,” she said.
Sabally is surrounded by a mix of young players and transfers, so she will be counted upon to lead the way. The 6-foot-5 junior forward from Germany averaged team highs of 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“We don’t have one player that’s played in front of the Duck fans,” Graves said.
Graves was in awe taking in the scenes around Pac-12 media day in San Francisco earlier this month.
“Just watching the student-athletes walking around and knowing how good that they are, it’s kind of daunting,” Graves said. “It’s going to be a heck of a year in the Pac-12.”
Five conference teams are in the AP preseason poll for a sixth straight season, leaving the Pac-12 tied for the most ranked teams with the ACC and Big Ten. Stanford sits at No. 3, Oregon No. 10, Oregon State No. 14, UCLA at 20 and Arizona at 22.
“We know that if we’re able to survive and thrive in the Pac-12 grind that the NCAA Tournament will be, I’m not going to say a walk in the park, but a whole lot easier,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.
First-year USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who spent eight seasons as Cal head coach from 2011-19, is back in the Pac-12 following two seasons on the NBA bench as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It was lifechanging,” Gottlieb said. “While it was short it was a chance for me to get out of my comfort zone, to do something that was scary and hard but really powerful. … I just had an opportunity to grow in so many ways. So I always thought that I would ultimately probably come back and be a head coach, I didn’t know when or where. But USC isn’t ordinary.”
The Trojans are thrilled to have junior Alissa Pili at full strength after her sophomore season was interrupted by an ankle injury that cost her the first 10 games. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2019-20, Pili reaggravated the injury on Jan. 24 against Stanford.
USC’s women are eager to see their growth under Gottlieb.
“Just the knowledge aspect of it, we just get to learn more about the game, about ourselves and ourselves as a program,” said forward Jordan Sanders, a grad student.
GROWTH OF CAL
Third-year coach Charmin Smith — who took over for Gottlieb in Berkeley — and her Golden Bears are grateful they even played games at all through the pandemic given how shorthanded they were.
“I’m really looking forward to us being in a situation where we can show our full potential and they can really display their talent, because they work extremely hard,” Smith said.
Cal went 1-16 overall and 1-12 in Pac-12 play, beating Arizona State on Feb. 21 in its third-to-last game — and now has several players healthy again.
“The whole pandemic just brought us closer together,” junior guard Leilani McIntosh said. “We were a very young team and we didn’t have those eight weeks along with other teams that didn’t have it. That quarantining and us being in that isolated area just brought us closer together on and off the court.”
In Tucson, you won’t find Barnes and the Wildcats discussing what might have been.
Arizona’s first rematch with Stanford is Jan. 30 on the road, and the Wildcats won’t host the Cardinal this season.
The success of last season only fuels this group.
“It doesn’t change our approach. It doesn’t change the way we work,” Barnes said. “You’re still going to see us diving on the floor, running people over, getting balls, that’s who we are. That’s our identity.”
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25