LOS ANGELES (AP)With the success of Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford in recent seasons, the Pac-12 has been considered one of the most competitive conferences in women’s basketball. But it has made a huge impact nationally as this season nears the midway point.
Four teams are ranked in the top eight in this week’s Associated Press Top 25, marking the first time that has happened in conference history. The last time it happened nationally was Jan. 27, 2014, when the ACC did it for the second straight week.
Oregon, which was the top-ranked team in the preseason, is No. 2 followed by third-ranked Oregon State, No. 5 Stanford and No. 8 UCLA.
“It has always been a strong conference. I don’t think it is a surprise but a testament to how hard we have worked,” UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere said. “We’ve done a good job of collaborating with other schools to make sure it happens.”
Oregon State and UCLA are off to the best starts in program history at 14-0 and are two of the four undefeated teams remaining in the country. The Ducks made their first Final Four appearance last season and made an immediate statement earlier this season when they defeated the U.S. national team.
Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer, whose team was ranked No. 1 earlier this season, said the competition at the top is great for everyone except when it comes to a coach’s sanity.
“It is very, very competitive but in the long run it gets you prepared for tournament basketball, whether it is Pac-12 or NCAA,” she said. “To see this is great. If you are rolling over teams every night. you are not getting the message of what it takes to compete in March.”
Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said on a Portland radio show this week that the stability in coaching staffs has been a big factor.
“When you have familiarity among staffs that can cause problems because of that knowledge,” he said. “The competition has been as good as it has ever been. The team cultures have been built.”
The conference was poised for a big season after having five teams advance to the Sweet 16 last year. Ten players from last year’s all-conference team returned, including Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, the reigning national player of the year, and Arizona’s Aari McDonald, who was the nation’s top returning scorer.
“It’s not a dramatic change from what we have been building the past five or six years but I don’t think I have ever seen it this good,” UCLA coach Cori Close said.
The Pac-12 has seven players on the midseason Wooden Award watch list, which is the most of any conference. Oregon leads the way with the trio of Ionsecu, Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally, followed by Oregon State’s Mikayla Pivec and Destiny Slocum, McDonald and Onyenwere.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves said the duo of Ionescu and Hubbard might go down as one of the best ever in the game. Ionsecu has 21 career triple-doubles, including three this season, along with leading the nation in assists per game (8.8).
“I don’t mean to be hyperbolic here. They’re as good as any duo that’s ever done it in this game, in college basketball. Enough said,” he said. “I mean, nobody has run it better than them that I can remember. We scored more on the pick and roll than any team in the country last year, men or women, and it’s usually Sabrina to Ruthy. So I can honestly say they’re two of the best that have ever done it together. They’ll always be linked.”
The Ducks (12-1) had a 58-point win over previously unbeaten Colorado last Sunday but have a tough road trip this weekend with Arizona State on Friday and No. 18 Arizona on Sunday. McDonald leads the conference in scoring (20.1 points per game).
While everyone might be looking ahead to the in-state battle between the Ducks and Beavers in two weeks, the Cardinal (13-1) hit the road to face both teams next week.
With a win over California on Friday or Sunday, VanDerveer would become the first women’s coach to reach 500 victories in a conference. She is 499-78 in the Pac-12.
The Bruins could end up being a darkhorse for one of the top two seeds because they face Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford only once in the regular season. They will host both Oregon schools in mid-February.
UCLA gained some confidence last Sunday with a 12-point win over Arizona but Close knows the stakes continue to be higher going into this week’s road trip to Colorado and Utah.
“If you’re a top 10 team and someone competing at the top of the league you have a target. There has to be an emotional maturity to focus and preparation,” she said.
At this pace the conference is expected to have two top seeds for the NCAA Tournament, but the biggest competition will be between the Ducks and Beavers for who gets to remain close to home with the West Regional in Portland.
Rueck said he told his team to ignore any talk of rankings.
“We cannot listen to anything that is outside our control. Don’t believe the hype and stay focused on how we are doing,” he said.
Sports Writers Janie McCauley in Stanford, California, and Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this story.