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Pac-12 women’s basketball: Ranking the teams ahead of conference play, Part 1

Which six teams look strongest? Check out part one of our look at the final season of the Pac-12.

USC v UCLA Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The final season of Pac-12 women’s basketball as we know it is now underway. All 12 programs have wrapped up their nonconference slate and played their first rivalry game as of the final weekend of 2023. Now, it’s time to look at the members of the league and see what the results of those nonconference schedules were and how they might have prepared each team for what lies ahead.

Just before the pandemic struck, the Pac-12 was still looking forward to its future. Women’s basketball considered some changes to get its top teams on national TV more often. The coaches all considered changes that would have eased the scheduling issues many faced by playing either a true round-robin or going to a 20-game conference schedule. At one point, it was reported that they would be making the change to 20 games. It didn’t last long.

During the first year of the pandemic, the Pac-12 played a true round-robin. Prior to the next season, the vote on regular season expansion was retaken and defeated. Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes said that about half the league’s coaches, including her, were in favor of going to the longer conference season so they could get more quality opponents without having to chase down nonconference games. The contingent won. The league would return to an 18-game schedule.

There was a change, though. In order to open a date for a tougher nonconference game later in the season, one of each program’s rivalry games would be played in December. The thinking was that the Pac-12 could follow a path some other top leagues walk. They have a challenging nonconference game in January or February then return to conference play. That game is often picked up by ESPN.

Perhaps it would have worked out if the Pac-12 had survived the TV executives’ and sports administrators’ reconfiguration wars. The Pac-12 isn’t going to survive in its existing form, though. This season it got the worst of both worlds in women’s basketball. Not only weren’t there 20 games with the top teams getting better competition all season, but there was also not the addition of a quality nonconference opponent later in the season. Instead, Morgan State visited Oregon State and Stanford. Arizona hosted Seattle University. As expected, the games were not on national TV and were of little interest to anyone but the two teams involved and their fans.

With all that said and done, what did pre-conference play and the opening rivalry game tell us about the Pac-12’s teams?

The coaches and media preseason polls both selected Utah as the top dog in the conference. This media member did not, however. UCLA got my vote with Stanford in second. They have lived up to that in nonconference play.

The league has had as many as six teams ranked this season, but there are currently only five teams in the Associated Press Top 25: No. 2 UCLA, No. 5 Colorado, No. 8 Stanford, No. 9 USC, and No. 15 Utah. Washington and Oregon State are both receiving votes, landing at the equivalent of No. 27 and No. 28 on the list.

As of Dec. 26, Charlie Creme has eight Pac-12 teams getting into the tournament. At some points this season, he has had 10. The eight he has in the field are No. 1 seed UCLA, No. 2 seeds USC, Colorado, and Stanford, No. 3 seed Utah, No. 7 seed Washington, and No. 8 seeds Oregon State and Washington State. He has California as one of the first four out.

Considering where the season is and who everyone has played, it’s unlikely that Creme’s current projections hold up through conference play. For example, Washington was listed as the automatic qualifier for almost a month simply because it was one of four teams that started Pac-12 play early.

It’s also tough to tell what the committee is going to do based on recent history. Last season, they left Oregon out despite having a top 20 NET and playing a tough schedule both inside and outside conference. The Ducks finished 17-14 with eight games coming against teams in the top 25 of the NET. When using the quadrant system that the men’s side employs, the Ducks were 3-15 in Q1, 6-0 in Q2, 7-0 in Q3, and 4-0 in Q4. That takes into consideration both where the game is played and who the opponent is.

Meanwhile, West Virginia found its way not only in the field of 68 but didn’t even have to play in the First Four despite a NET of 60. The Mountaineers were 19-11 and lost to Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament. They ended the Big 12 Tournament 4-10 in Q1, 5-2 in Q2, 2-0 in Q3, and 8-0 in Q4. They were immediately dismissed from the tourney by Arizona.

Teams like Oregon State, which played an out-of-conference schedule ranked 309th out of 360 Division I teams, may find themselves sliding soon, as well. The Beavers have yet to play a true road game and only left Corvallis for two neutral-site games towards the end of non-league play. What happens when the competition is UCLA in Pauley Pavilion instead of Morgan State in Gill Coliseum?

Here’s how the league stacks up based on who they’ve played and how they’ve played those teams. Rankings are from Her Hoop Stats and the NET. RPI strength of schedule is from NET strength of schedule is from the NCAA’s stats database. Records include only DI opponents. Several teams played non-DI opponents, in some cases more than one. While women’s basketball doesn’t officially use quadrants like the men do, it’s a helpful concept for comparing teams, so quad breakdowns are used.

Note that if a team does not have any Quad 1 wins, its best Quad 2 win is listed as “best out-of-conference win by NET.” Also, if a team only has a few losses or has only played teams in the upper quads, its “worst” loss may be one that doesn’t actually hurt it.

No. 1 UCLA Bruins (12-0, 1-0 Pac-12)

Best OOC wins by NET: Connecticut (11), Ohio State (13)

Worst OOC losses: N/A

Average NET of wins: 133

Average NET of losses: N/A

Overall NET ranking: 5

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 11 (overall), 11 (offensive), 14 (defensive)

OOC SOS: 50 (NET), 12 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (4-0), Quad 2 (2-0), Quad 3 (1-0), Quad 4 (4-0)

Not only were the Bruins stellar againsot multiple top teams in nonconference, but they also opened strong in Pac-12 play on Friday. UCLoA defeated USC 71-64 to tip off league play. In nonconference play, the Bruins were 4-0. Their win over the Women of Troy makes them 5-0 in all Q1 games.

There are no real holes in the lineup or the resume despite losing forward Emily Bessoir to a season-ending injury. It’s not just about Charisma Osborne, Kiki Rice, and Lauren Betts. Players like Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez are also coming up big for UCLA. The Bruins currently look like a team that could make the Final Four for the first time under head coach Cori Close.

No. 2 Stanford Cardinal (12-1, 1-0 Pac-12)

Best OOC wins by NET: Indiana (18), Duke (29), Florida State (41)

Worst OOC loss by NET: Gonzaga (15)

Average NET of wins: 110

Average NET of losses: 15

Overall NET ranking: 2

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 2 (overall), 3 (offensive), 2 (defensive)

OOC SOS: 51 (NET), 14 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (3-1), Quad 2 (2-0), Quad 3 (4-0), Quad 4 (2-0)

When a team’s worst (and only) loss is to Gonzaga—which is ranked 15th in the NET and by Her Hoop Stats—on the road, there’s not much to complain about. Add to that the fact that the Cardinal lost that game after their best player went down with an injury and only played 11 minutes, and there’s very little to worry about these days in Palo Alto. Along with UCLA and Arizona, they are the only teams in the Pac-12 to have played four out-of-conference games that were considered Q1 at the time they were played. The Cardinal and the Bruins still have four Q1 games, but Arizona’s fourth Q1 opponent has since dropped into Q2. Also note the big difference between SOS based on NET and SOS based on RPI. Sometimes this is due to one database updating before another one does. Other times, it comes down to the two systems valuing different criteria. Both systems can be useful when comparing times, but NET will ultimately be more important to the committee when it’s time to select the 68-team field.

No. 3 Colorado Buffaloes (11-1, 1-0 Pac-12)

Best OOC wins by NET: LSU (16)

Worst OOC loss by NET: NC State (11)

Average NET of wins: 147

Average NET of losses: 11

Overall NET ranking: 19

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 17 (overall), 16 (offensive), 21 (defensive)

OOC SOS: 110 (NET), 29 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (1-1), Quad 2 (2-0), Quad 3 (3-0), Quad 4 (4-0)

Only four of the Buffaloes’ nonconference games were Q1 and Q2 contests. They were 3-1 in those games with the big win over defending champion LSU. Colorado backed that up with a home win over Utah to open conference play, but Utah has its own concerns. Star guard Gianna Kneepkens is gone for the year with an injury and there are big questions about how well the Utes’ nonconference prepared them. That’s one reason there is such a huge gap between strength of schedule as determined by RPI (which is almost exclusively based on W/L records) and NET (which isn’t entirely clear but appears to include some stats focused on offensive efficiency as well as W/L and location of game). For now, it looks like Colorado is one of the top three teams in the league. That could change any day.

No. 4 USC Women of Troy (10-1, 0-1 Pac-12)

Best OOC wins by NET: Ohio State (17)

Worst OOC loss by NET: N/A

Average NET of wins: 141

Average NET of losses: 5

Overall NET ranking: 12

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 21 (overall), 29 (offensive), 16 (defensive)

OOC SOS: 94 (NET), 24 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (3-0), Quad 2 (1-0), Quad 3 (2-0), Quad 4 (4-0)

The Women of Troy had some tough games early in the season. Then, they started playing nothing but cupcakes for an extended period. The reality of the Pac-12 hit them last weekend with UCLA on the other side of the court. There’s no doubt that presumptive Pac-12 Freshman of the Year JuJu Watkins can lead the team to a lot of wins over the mid-tier and bottom of the league. The team is also very good at home. Its challenges will be against squads like UCLA, Stanford, Colorado, and Utah—especially on the road. The Women of Troy have only left the Galen Center once since Nov. 22. On Dec. 18, they traveled about 25 miles away to play at Long Beach State. It was their only true road game of the season prior to opening conference play at UCLA. Their other three games away from home were neutral site.

No. 5 Utah Utes (8-3, 0-1 Pac-12)

Best OOC wins by NET: St. Joseph’s (54)

Worst OOC loss by NET: Baylor (8)

NET average wins: 228

NET of average losses: 9

Overall NET ranking: 4

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 4 (overall), 4 (offensive), 10 (defensive)

OOC SOS: 54 (NET), 67 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (1-2), Quad 2 (0-0), Quad 3 (3-0), Quad 4 (4-0)

Utah is an interesting case for several reasons. The Utes have some what looks like a decent win against St. Joseph’s and their SOS doesn’t look bad, but they also scheduled some of the worst teams in Division I. Not only that, but they reached down to schedule a Division II team (Alaska-Anchorage) and an NAIA team (Carroll College from Helena, Mont.). Their own schedule says they are 10-3. The NCAA says they are 8-3 because games against teams below DI do not count for NCAA purposes. They don’t hurt a team, but they don’t help, either. Getting seven of eight nonconference wins from teams in the bottom two quadrants certainly doesn’t look good. They certainly don’t look good on the schedules of a team like Utah that aspires to play for championships.

The Utes also lost a big part of their team when Kneepkens was lost for the season. They still have the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year and they have a lot of shooters. It’s just a big part of the team to suddenly lose as they begin facing tough competition on a weekly basis. The loss to Colorado to open conference play didn’t assuage any concerns.

No. 6 Washington Huskies

Best OOC wins by NET: Montana State (122)

Worst OOC loss by NET: Louisville (26)

Average NET of wins: 202

Average NET of losses: 26

Overall NET ranking: 30

Her Hoop Stats rankings: 46 (overall), 73 (offense), 25 (defense)

OOC SOS: 54 (NET), 218 (RPI)

OOC Quad results: Quad 1 (0-1), Quad 2 (0-0), Quad 3 (4-0), Quad 4 (6-0)

The Huskies are the big story of the first half of the season. Now, it’s time to see if they can live up to that in the second half when things get much more difficult. If they can maintain, it could mean their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in almost a decade. They also have a long layoff this season to overcome. When the Huskies take the court at Haas Pavilion on Jan. 5, it will be their first game since an eight-point loss at Louisville back on Dec. 20. Two days later, they’ll play their toughest opponent of the season when they face Stanford in Maples Pavilion. For a team that has struggled to find dependable offense their win over Washington State in early December proves that they’re not afraid to walk into hostile territory and pull off the stunner, though. They couldn’t do the same when they visited the state of Kentucky, though. This is a very optimistic call for Washington, especially considering how weak its schedule is. It just feels like head coach Tina Langley finally has things on track.

Come back tomorrow for part two, which includes Arizona, Arizona State, California, Washington State, Oregon, and Oregon State. See where the Wildcats landed, why, and what they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament this year.