Breaking up the Pac-12 means breaking up one of the strongest women’s basketball leagues in the country. Last season, the conference sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. At least five teams have gone to the tournament every year since 2013-14. Since the 2012-13 season, it has accounted for nine Final Four appearances by six different teams.
The end of the league also means the end of something that was very dear to Arizona head coach Adia Barnes. When a move to the Big 12 was first discussed after USC and UCLA dropped their bombshell in 2022, Barnes was unenthused about the idea. Her love for the Pac-12 was evident.
“For me, it’s so hard because I’m so biased to the Pac-12,” Barnes said in July of 2022. “Because I grew up in the Pac-12 and I wanted to be in the Pac. I can’t even imagine.”
Those feelings toward the Pac-12 might have been one of the reasons Barnes ultimately rejected Baylor’s attempt to hire her away from her alma mater in the spring of 2022. Now, she will be facing the Bears regularly instead.
What else is in store for Arizona women’s basketball?
The 2023-24 additions
None of the teams being added this season had good years last season. BYU, UCF, and Houston were all in the .500 neighborhood while Cincinnati was a dismal 9-21. BYU probably has the strongest chance of being competitive in its new home.
BYU hired Amber Whiting to be its coach last season, bringing her in after the retirement of longtime head coach Jeff Judkins. Whiting’s team went 16-17 overall and 9-9 in conference play, but she’s bringing in help this season. Her daughter, freshman guard Amari Whiting, was offered by a number of schools, including Arizona. She originally committed to Oregon before her mother was hired at BYU. Now, she will try to help the Cougars get back on track.
BYU gave Arizona trouble in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, losing 52-46 in the second round to the eventual national runners-up.
The Big 12 Old Guard
Even if Texas and Oklahoma were staying in the league, Baylor would be without a doubt the strongest program in the conference historically speaking. The Bears had a down year by their standards last season, ending 20-13 overall and 10-8 in conference play. That overall record included a loss to Arizona in Dallas.
The Bears still made the NCAA Tournament and got to the second round. In fact, they have been to every tournament this century except the one held in 2003. They have landed in the final AP poll of the year 22 times in their history with 21 of those coming in the 21st century. They have won three titles, taking home the championship in 2005, 2012, and 2019.
Iowa State is another strong contender in the league. The Cyclones were No. 17 in the final AP poll last season after finishing third in the Big 12 with an 11-7 conference record. They were 22-10 overall. They defeated Texas to take the Big 12 Conference Tournament championship but were upset by Toledo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cyclones have had a player get at least honorable mention on the AP All-American team every season since 2018. They have placed one or more players on at least the AP All-American honorable mention list 16 times stretching back to 1999.
Last season, the league sent five of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, including West Virginia. The Mountaineers lost to Arizona in the opening round.
Kansas won the WNIT, giving the conference a reason to celebrate the postseason. The Jayhawks won four of the six games by double digits, dominating just as they did when they visited McKale Center earlier in the season.
Including Arizona, three of the top four teams from last year’s Pac-12 will be joining the Big 12. The additions of the Wildcats, Utah, and Colorado should immediately make the Big 12 a much deeper conference.
With Baylor being the top team in the current league, Arizona will not have the kind of juggernaut at the top that Stanford has been in the Pac-12. That immediately opens the possibility of conference titles for the ‘Cats, the Utes, and the Buffs. If Arizona State can get back on track under second-year head coach Natasha Adair, the Sun Devils could be in the mix, too.
Arizona’s current roster has one player from California. Breya Cunningham is the only player from anywhere on the Pacific Coast, although Jada Williams spent her last two years of high school in California. Williams grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. The rest of the roster comes from Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Florida, Nevada, Utah, and outside the U.S.
The lack of players from the states along the Pacific Coast is not new. Despite being a California native, Barnes has not filled her team with West Coast talent during her tenure. The most she has had in a single season is three when Aari McDonald (Fresno, Calif.), Bendu Yeaney (Portland, Ore.), and Semaj Smith (Long Beach, Calif.) were on the roster. Only Smith was recruited to Arizona directly out of high school.
While Barnes inherited a roster full of players from the West Coast in 2016-17, she is not overly focused on that part of the country when she recruits. She recruits nationally and internationally.
The move to the Big 12 could help in one respect. Barnes has had difficulty getting players out of Texas. Beyond former post Cate Reese, Barnes has not landed a big fish from the Lone Star State.
The Wildcats have offered a few out of powerhouse DeSoto High School, but they haven’t been able to secure any commitments. The school is located in a suburb of Dallas, meaning the players will likely hear more about Arizona after the program begins playing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area more regularly.
Most female athletes will have some degree of difficult travel added to their workloads. Women’s basketball players will be the least affected by the change. Like men’s basketball and football, the women’s basketball team charters flights to away games. It began chartering as a regular practice at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020-21 and the practice has continued.
While fans and the media have often criticized the Pac-12 Network, Pac-12 women’s basketball coaches have pointed to the network as a primary mover behind the rise of the conference over the past decade or so. While the league was once considered one of the weaker groups in the country, that can’t be said about it now.
Women’s basketball makes its way to linear TV more often than other women’s sports, but the loss of the Pac-12 Network will still mean a dramatic decrease in the number of games on TV. Most Big 12 women’s basketball is streamed on ESPN+.