Stanford has long been one of the country’s dominant programs but this is the first time in seven seasons the Cardinal come into the Pac-12 Conference tournament as the top seed.
Tara VanDerveer’s team is favored to win this week’s tournament in Las Vegas after the fourth-ranked Cardinal won their 24th regular-season conference title. Stanford has an 11-game winning streak and has been ranked in the top six all season despite not playing on campus in December and January due to COVID-19 restrictions on sporting events and practices in Santa Clara County, California.
“The ones who go the furthest are the ones who don’t want it to end. We’re going to have to play hard,” said VanDerveer, whose team is projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford (22-2, 19-2) isn’t the only team looking for a high seed. Ninth-ranked UCLA and No. 11 Arizona are in line for either a second seed or third seed while No. 19 Oregon was projected to be a fourth seed when the NCAA women’s selection committee revealed its top 16 teams Sunday.
Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado are in the top 50 in the NET rankings as all three schools look to bolster their résumés.
Stanford — which has won 13 of the 19 Pac-12 women’s tournaments — is 13-1 in road or neutral site games this season. While other programs were shut down due to COVID-19 positive tests or contact tracing, the Cardinal played all but one of their 22 scheduled conference regular-season games. Their 24 total games are tied for second-most among ranked teams.
“I think the most important thing is we’re healthy. We’ve been working hard but not grinding them into the ground,” said VanDerveer, who was named the conference’s top coach for a 16th time. “We are taking care of the ball and rebounding better while still improving all the little parts of our game.”
The Cardinal have one of the deeper squads in the nation. Senior Kiana Williams, junior Lexie Hull and sophomore Haley Jones were named to the all-conference team while junior Lacie Hull was named Sixth Player of the Year and senior Anna Wilson the co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Second-seeded Arizona (15-4, 13-4) has the Pac-12 Player of the Year in senior Aari McDonald but the Wildcats have dropped their last two games, including a 14-point loss to Stanford on Feb. 22 where they scored a season-low 48 points.
McDonald, an AP Preseason All-America selection, led the conference in scoring (19.2 points per game), but coach Adia Barnes is looking for the rest of her team to step up.
“We can’t only rely on her. I can’t run every offense for her,” said Barnes. “My concern is we aren’t playing our best basketball right now.”
Third-seeded UCLA (14-4, 12-4) defeated Stanford earlier this season and is coming into the tournament after a 41-point rout of Southern California. With senior and Preseason All-America pick Michaela Onyenwere and sophomore Charisma Osborne, the Bruins have the only pair of teammates in the top five in scoring.
However, UCLA also has played most of the year with only seven or eight players and has had only one weekend where it played two games in three days.
Fourth-seeded Oregon (13-7, 10-7) saw its three-year reign as regular-season champ end this season and has dropped four of its last five games. Freshman Te-Hina Paopao and redshirt sophomore Nyara Sabally made the all-conference team and give coach Kelly
Graves optimism his team can rebound.
“We need to step up and play better; it’s a new season,” Graves said. “We’ve had our struggles, especially down the stretch here. I’m forever an optimist. I feel like we can, but at some point we’ve got to actually do it.”
Fifth seed Oregon State (9-6, 7-6) has won six of its last seven to solidify its NCAA Tournament hopes. The Beavers would need four wins in five days to win the conference title, but they have road wins the last two weeks against UCLA and Oregon.
ESPN’s latest projections have Washington State as one of the last four teams in and Colorado one of the first eight teams out.
The Cougars (11-10, 9-10, No. 43 NET) are above .500 and looking for their first NCAA bid since 1991. They are led by Freshman of the Year Charlisse Leger-Walker, who is also the first player in program history to make the all-conference squad. The seventh seed opens against Utah Wednesday and would face Arizona if it advances.
The Buffaloes (19-9, 8-8, No. 50 NET) have four straight wins going into their first-round game against Washington on Wednesday. A win by Colorado, which is the sixth seed, would set up a meeting against UCLA. Both regular-season games were postponed because the Bruins were under the limit of seven healthy scholarship players.