It’ll be tough for Pac-12 women’s basketball to top its 2020-21, but the league will try.
Last season’s national championship game was an all-Pac-12 affair, with Stanford besting its conference foe Arizona, 54-53, in an instant classic. The Cardinal should once again find themselves near the top of the conference, with the likes or Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona, Colorado, USC, and Arizona State all around them looking to rise up into that top tier.
There’s no guarantee that Stanford repeats, but the West Coast should be popping after dark with another exciting campaign in Pac-12 women’s basketball. The question is, can it produce the first back-to-back champion since UConn did it from 2013 through 2016.
Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Preview 2021-22
Head coach: Tara VanDerveer (37th season)
2020-21 record: 31-2 (19-2 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 1st
Coming off of a national title and returning four starts from that team, the Cardinal are clear-cut favorites at the top of Pac-12 women’s basketball. After breaking Pat Summitt’s all-time win record, head coach Tara VanDerveer has less to prove than ever before. VanDerveer has three championships and 36-straight seasons of at least 20 wins, but one accolade missing from her resume after snapping Stanford’s title drought is back-to-back national triumphs.
Beyond losing leading-scorer guard Kiana Williams to the WNBA, the Cardinal return four of their top-five scorers from 2020-21 in Haley Jones, Lexie Hull, Fran Belibi, and Cameron Brink, as well as starter Anna Wilson. Jones comes back as the nation’s reigning NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and Stanford is also welcoming in another strong class of freshmen, including three members of ESPNW’s top 100.
There are some high hopes for the reigning champs on a national scale, let alone in the Pac-12.
Contenders: Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA
Head coach: Aida Barnes (6th season)
2020-21 record: 21-6 (13-4 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 2nd
Last year’s runner-ups will have to come in without top-scorer Aari McDonald, who left for the WNBA after an electric March Madness run. Aida Barnes, one of just four coaches to ever lead their alma mater to a title game, will look to retool the squad with six brand-new faces, including three freshmen and three transfers – she’s brought in two ESPNW top-100 recruits in Madison Conner and Aaronette Vonleh, as well as transfers from Oregon, Vanderbilt, and Alabama.
Without McDonald, who keyed Arizona’s run to the title game, the Wildcats are expected to take a tiny step back. But the team should still find itself near the upper echelon of the conference.
Head coach: Kelly Graves (8th season)
2020-21 record: 15-9 (10-7 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 4th
The Ducks came into the 2020-21 season with the top-ranked recruiting class, which led it to a top-25 finish in the country and top-four finish in the conference. Oregon brings back Nyara Sabally, the younger sister of Dallas Wings player and former Ducks star Satou Sabally, as well as most of that top-ranked group from 2020, all now with another year of experience.
Oregon did lose former Maryland transfer Taylor Mikesell to Ohio State this offseason, but it replaced one Taylor with another. Graves opted for a one-person freshman class this year, bringing in four-star guard prospect Taylor Bigby.
Overall, Graves returns much of the team that made its fourth-straight Sweet 16 and finished with a top-20 offensive rating, according to WarrenNolan.com. The Ducks should once again be contenders in Pac-12 women’s basketball.
Head coach: Scott Rueck (12th season)
2020-21 record: 12-8 (7-6 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 5th
Aleah Goodman is now a member of the Duke women’s basketball staff, so head coach Scott Rueck won’t have her and her 16.2 points per game to propel his team in 2021-22. But he will have freshman guard Talia von Oelhoffen, who joined the Beavers late last season in what should have been her senior year of high school. Through 13 games, she averaged 11.3 points and 3.0 assists per outing, plus shot 43.4 percent from beyond the arc.
She should be a big part of what Oregon State does, as should fellow returners Taylor Jones, Ellie Mack, and Taya Corosdale. With the amount of talent coming back and the trusty and experienced Rueck on the sideline, the Beavers should return to the role of contender in this league.
Head coach: Cori Close (11th season)
2020-21 record: 17-6 (12-4 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 3rd
There’s been a decent amount of roster turnover at UCLA, at least relative to most of Pac-12 women’s basketball, but that doesn’t mean the Bruins are without talent.
Three of the team’s five starters from 2020-21 are gone, but Charisma Osborne and her 17.0 points per game are back, as is Natalie Chou, who will be asked to take on a bigger role after the departures. Head coach Cori Close helped fill the gaps via the transfer portal, signing four players through that method, including IImar’I Thomas (Cincinnati), the reigning AAC Player of the Year, and Gina Conti (Wake Forest), who started 86 games in four years for the Demon Deacons and averaged 13.8 points per contest last season.
UCLA should again be one of the strongest teams in this conference and one of the more serious challenging threats to Stanford.
Stuck in Purgatory: Arizona State, Colorado, USC, Washington State
Head coach: Charli Turner Thorne (25th season)
2020-21 record: 12-12 (6-9 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 9th
Last season, Arizona State was pretty good defensively, finishing third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense with 56.71 points allowed per game, and pretty bad when it controlled the ball, ending second-to-last in the league in scoring offense with just 54 points per contest. To put bluntly, you will not contend in this conference with that low of a scoring output.
The Sun Devils have a lot of their 2020-21 talent back again, including top scorers Taya Hanson and Jaddan Simmons. But will that translate to enough points on the board to compete? On its own, probably not, but head coach Charli Turner Thorne did some work in the transfer portal to bring in reinforcements. She attracted 2020 Mountain West Newcomer of the Year Ayzhiana Basallo to come to ASU from San Jose State, and she scored 18.5 points per outing in the 2019-20 campaign, plus shot 45.4 percent from three. Basallo should provide Arizona State with another important piece to ideally improve that offensive output.
Still, that’s a big leap the Sun Devils have to make to be where they need to be offensively to contend for a championship in this league. But with how stingy they are defensively, they won’t need a complete overhaul offensively. But a significant increase will be necessary.
Head coach: JR Payne (5th season)
2020-21 record: 12-11 (8-8 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 6th
Colorado was right in the middle of the Pac-12 last season, and that is a purgatory the Buffaloes could find themselves in again this time around. This league is so strong at the top, it might be a struggle for Colorado to break through beyond what it already has.
The team was middling on both ends of the floor in 2020-21, ranking in the middle third for both offensive and defensive rating, according to WarrenNolan.com. That doesn’t mean an NCAA Tournament bid is out of the question – this league is very difficult, and finishing in the middle doesn’t make you a bad team in the slightest. The Buffaloes are returning each of their top-three scorers – Mya Hollingshed (15.4 ppg), Frida Formann (12.4 ppg), and Jaylyn Sherrod (10.4 ppg) – to help them potentially improve on their 2020-21 campaign and make the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.
Head coach: Lindsay Gottlieb (1st season)
2020-21 record: 11-12 (8-10 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 8th
It’s Lindsay Gottlieb’s first year at USC, and the expectations aren’t too high for the former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant and Cal head coach. She took the Golden Bears to the NCAA Tournament in seven of her eight seasons there, so while this season isn’t expected to be great, the thought is she will have the Trojans rebuilt in the not-so-distant future.
Gottlieb enters with the No. 7 class in the country, according to ESPN, and returns USC’s second-leading scorer from 2020-21 in Jordan Sanders (11.7 ppg). She’s also added VCU transfer Tera Reed, who was a Third Team All-A-10 performer a season ago.
USC won’t compete for the Pac-12 women’s basketball title in 2021-22, but Gottlieb was a big-time hire who should have the Trojans moving in the right direction going forward.
Head coach: Kamie Ethridge (4th season)
2020-21 record: 12-12 (9-10 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 7th
With all five of their starters from 2020-21 back for 2021-22, including Charlisse Leger-Walker and her 18.8 points per game, the Cougars could do a good deal better than their .500 output from a season ago. The problem is, who else will step up to support her enough to turn this team into a contender?
Charlisse Leger-Walker scored nine points more per outing than the team’s next-highest scorer, her sister Krystal Leger-Walker, and Washington State just generally doesn’t have a ton of scorers – none of the five returning starters shot better than 34 percent from deep in 2020-21. So, while a step forward is possible with continuity, can a team without multiple regular scoring threats contend for a championship in this conference? Probably not.
Basement: California, Utah, Washington
Head coach: Charmin Smith (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 1-16 (1-14 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 12th
Cal fell off ta climb in the two seasons since Lindsay Gottlieb was at the helm, bottoming out and falling deep into the conference’s basement. To win one game in an entire season is, well, putrid.
Injuries hit Cal hard, with Alma Elsnitz and Jazlen Green both having their seasons cut very short with serious ailments. They’re now both back and healthy, and the Golden Bears return a lot of their talent from 2020-21. It can’t get much worse than winning one game all season long, so you can expect Cal to improve on that. But will this team compete for a conference championship? Not even close.
Head coach: Lynne Roberts (7th season)
2020-21 record: 5-16 (4-15 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 10th
The Utes need all the help they can get, scoring just 60 points per game last season on poor shooting percentages from the field (.373) and deep (.303). With marks like those, it’s no surprise Utah found itself in the basement of Pac-12 women’s basketball in 2020-21.
Head coach Lynne Roberts returns top scorer and All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention guard Bryanna Maxwell, plus key contributors Kemery Martin and Dru Gylten. Roberts is also adding top-100 forward Jenna Johnson into the mix. With Utah’s top-three scorers from last season all back and some youth involved, the program will hope to do better than win only one-third of its games.
Head coach: Tina Langley (1st season)
2020-21 record: 7-14 (3-13 in Pac-12)
Conference finish: 11th
The Huskies enter season one under Tina Langley, who comes to the Pac-12 from Rice, aiming to improve on what was an unsuccessful go in 2020-21. While that’s possible, it isn’t likely that Washington fares much better in the Pac-12 standings.
Still, there are some positives. Langley convinced three ESPNW top-100 prospects to come to Seattle, plus she is joined by Rice transfer Nancy Mulkey, last year’s WNIT MVP and three-time member of the Conference USA All-Defensive Team. So, the future looks like it’ll be better than the past, but it doesn’t appear like the present will be all that much better than the past.
2021-22 Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Players to Watch
Haley Jones – Guard – Junior – Stanford
Haley Jones is one of the most versatile players in the country, let alone the Pac-12. She was instrumental in Stanford’s national championship run a season ago, and now as an upperclassman, you can expect her to continue to grow into the large role she proved she could fill in March.
The reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player will likely outdo her 13.2 points per game average from 2020-21, and I expect her to get close to averaging a double-double for the season, if not outright doing it.
Charlisse Leger-Walker – Guard – Sophomore – Washington State
The New Zealand native was out of this world in her freshman season, quickly becoming one of the premier scorers in Pac-12 women’s basketball – her 18.8 points per contest ranked third in the league. But she did more than put the ball in the bucket. Leger-Walker was also top-10 in the conference in assists (3.1 dimes per night), shooting percentage (35.3 percent), and steals (2.3 per game).
Leger-Walker was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season, and you can expect another wonderful rendition from her in 2020-21.
Charisma Osborne – Guard – Junior – UCLA
Charisma Osborne filled in as UCLA’s point guard last season even though it isn’t her natural position, and she grew into the role. Now, with Michaela Onyenwere off to the WNBA, even more responsibility will be placed on Osborne’s shoulders.
Despite playing out of position and measuring in at 5-foot-9, Osborne averaged 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game in 2020-21. The 2021-22 season should spell another step forward for Osborne in her progression, and I expect a big season on the way for the Bruins guard.
2021-22 MEN’S & WOMEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL CONFERENCE PREVIEWS
Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.