A conference places two teams in the national championship game in a year where the schedule had to be radically altered for the pandemic. The next year, only one game is scheduled between the two teams. It doesn’t seem like the best way to get exposure for your conference, but that’s what the Pac-12 opted to do with Arizona and Stanford women’s basketball this season.
The Wildcats and the Cardinal will face each other in Maples Pavilion on Jan. 30 on ESPN2, getting the kind of national attention the league rarely gets. There will be no return game in Tucson.
Last season, the Pac-12 scheduled a 22-game full round-robin conference season for women’s basketball due to the uncertainties caused by COVID-19. Teams across the league have already had to make tweaks to their schedules again this year due to the ongoing pandemic. Next season, the Pac-12 has discussed switching to a 20-game conference schedule for the women, meaning that changes in matchups will have to be made yet again.
With the regular scheduling rotation already significantly altered, concerns about fairness or consistency appear to be less pressing than making sure the rematch of the national championship game happened twice this year. The exposure for the two teams and the league as a whole is in the best interest of the conference. Instead, women’s basketball fans across the country will only get to watch this rematch once.
What will they see? On one hand, a team that struggles to take care of the ball but is still undefeated in Pac-12 play. On the other hand, a team that has the lowest scoring defense in the conference but has put itself at risk lately by getting off to slow starts—on both offense and defense.
The former is defending national champion Stanford. The Cardinal are turning over the ball 14.7 times per game this season. That puts them in the bottom half of the league at No. 7. Arizona is the third-best Pac-12 team at taking care of the ball, although the difference between the two teams is not extreme. The Wildcats turn the ball over 14.1 times per game, placing them behind only UCLA and Oregon.
Arizona is having difficulty starting games of late. In their last two contests, the Wildcats have fallen behind by as many as 10 in the first quarter. That has forced them to play catchup. It was possible against Colorado and a shorthanded UCLA, but Stanford is a completely different animal.
“I feel like usually last year, we were a bad third-quarter team, and now we’re moving it into the first quarter,” said senior wing Sam Thomas. “So I don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re definitely gonna pick it up before Stanford, because we can’t come out against Stanford and be down 8-19, whatever it was (against UCLA), and then try and come back and win.”
In Arizona’s favor, the team’s offense has improved since conference play started. In the Wildcats’ seven conference games, they have three players averaging double figures in scoring. Cate Reese has been a reliable scorer since she stepped foot on campus in 2018, but Thomas and Shaina Pellington have also kicked it into high gear since the onset of league play.
Reese is scoring 14.8 points per game overall this season. Since she started facing conference opponents, that has increased to 17.1 ppg, good for third in the league in Pac-12 play.
Pellington’s scoring has been a concern for the fan base since she transferred into his own last year. The Wildcat faithful were extremely concerned that the team would be unable to withstand the loss of Aari McDonald if Pellington became her primary replacement. That hasn’t proven to be a problem.
Overall, Pellington has averaged 10.2 ppg this season. That makes the redshirt senior the second-highest scorer on the team. In conference play, she has increased her output to 16.6 ppg, which is also second on the team and fifth in the Pac-12. It’s also a significant improvement over the 13.1 ppg she scored as Big 12 Freshman of the Year at Oklahoma.
Thomas has been a particularly dangerous scorer over the past four games. She has averaged 15.3 ppg while hitting 16 of 23 three-point shots over those four contests. That has increased her season average from 7.4 to 9.2 ppg. In eight conference games, she is hitting 10.9 ppg.
Part of the difference for all three players is minutes per game. Each member of the trio has seen her minutes significantly increase since Pac-12 play started. It’s expected that as opponents improve, the minutes of the primary rotation players will increase. It just doesn’t ‘always lead to improvements in shooting percentages.
Pellington is shooting 38.1 percent from three-point distance for the year. In league play, that has kicked up to 42.9 percent. Thomas has experienced similar growth, seeing her numbers jump from 48.5 percent overall to a whopping 54.8 percent accuracy from outside against conference opponents.
But this is Stanford. There’s conference play, then there’s going to the Cardinal’s home gym and trying to beat them.
It will be just the second contest in Maples Pavilion that has fans after temporary restrictions were instituted on Jan. 4. The home team is celebrating with a Tara VanDerveer bobblehead day. The game is on ESPN2. Can the Wildcats rise to the occasion?
“There’s no pressure against Stanford,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. “Stanford’s ranked higher. They’re a really good team. So we go there, we do our best. And then we come back home and play the Oregons. So, this is a really important stretch for a lot of different reasons right now.”
No. 8 Arizona (15-2, 5-2) @ No. 2 Stanford (15-3, 6-0)
When and where: The game will tip off at Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif. at 2 p.m. MST on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022.
TV: The game will air on ESPN2.
Radio: The radio call by Brody Dryden will be on 1400 AM (KTUC). The broadcast can also be accessed online at The Varsity Network or on the station’s website.
Stats: In-game stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.
Rankings and ratings: Arizona is ranked No. 8 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA TODAY Sports/WBCA poll. The Wildcats are No. 8 in the NET and in Her Hoop Stats’ rankings.
Stanford is ranked No. 2 in both major polls. The Cardinal are also No. 2 in both the NET and Her Hoop Stats’ rankings.
Standings: Stanford is in first place in the Pac-12 with a 6-0 record. Arizona stands in third at 5-2. The Wildcats are a half-game in back of the Oregon Ducks.
Projections: Her Hoop Stats gives the Cardinal 84.9 percent win probability. It is only the second time in conference play that the stats service has predicted an Arizona loss. The last time was at Oregon. Out-of-conference, the service also predicted the Wildcats would lose to Louisville.
The model predicts a final score of 68.3 to 56.7. HHS also predicts that Stanford would win if the game were played in Tucson or in a neutral environment.
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