Metcalfe – Pac-12 WBB postseason plunge: Grading the teams, look ahead to ’23

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Story by Jeff Metcalfe 

For your aspirational Stanford student, acing everything during the quarter then somewhat botching the final isn’t acceptable. Even if it doesn’t impact your final grade.

That’s what it felt like for the Stanford women’s basketball team carrying a 24-game winning streak into the Final Four with a chance to defend its title — only to lose 63-58 to Connecticut, always a worthy opponent but this time the underdog.

“Sometimes you do just enough with what you have,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, opting for a golf analogy. “Just scrape it around and get it in the hole the best you can, then go to the 19th hole and have a drink.”

Stanford shot 17 percent from 3-point range for a second consecutive game but, unlike against Texas in the Elite Eight, it was out-rebounded and had just four points from Lexie Hull.

Hull played 37 minutes vs. UConn, most of it with her nose plugged to stop bleeding that began after a foul by Azzi Fudd midway through the first quarter.

“Both her nostrils were bleeding and she’s still trying to be out there,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She’s an absolute warrior. I wouldn’t trade her for any player.”

Hull announced April 4 that she’s trading college for pro basketball, declaring her eligibility for Monday’s WNBA draft. Her twin sister Lacie is going to work for eBay in Austin, Texas, while Anna Wilson has completed her 160-game career (a school record).

Stanford, which devoted much of this season to replacing point guard Kiana Williams, will be back at that task with a new set of candidates. And the conference as a whole needs an upgrade in elite guard play.

“I give so much credit to Lacie for what she did for us and Anna,” VanDerveer said. “But tonight (against UConn) we needed more. A lot of it is just the experience of running a team, and it caught up with us.”

Aside from Stanford, Pac-12 falls below lofty goals

With an undefeated Pac-12 regular season and 15th conference tournament title, Stanford (32-4) earned an ‘A’ grade for the season. It could have been an A+ if the Cardinal’s 15th Final Four had gone better.

Stanford’s postseason was salvation for the Pac-12, which failed to put multiple teams into the Sweet Sixteen or beyond for the first time since 2014. Five achieved that as recently as 2019, and both national finalists were from the Pac-12 in 2021.

Collectively, we’ll assign a B- to the rest of the Pac-12 based on recent results and higher internal expectations. Not that all 11 only were slightly better than average.

Here’s a more nuanced look at those other than Stanford by tier.

— Exceeded expectations: Washington State (19-11), Colorado (22-9) and Utah (21-12) were picked by coaches to finish sixth, seventh and tied for 10th, respectively. Instead, they wound up tied for second, fifth and sixth, with Utah reaching the Pac-12 tournament final for the first time, Colorado reaching the semifinals and all three making the NCAA Tournament.

Only Utah advanced to the second round in its first NCAA appearance since 2011, but Colorado’s first-round loss to Creighton looked better after the Bluejays made it through to the Elite Eight.

— Not up to standard: Yes, Oregon (20-12) and Arizona (21-8) made it back to the NCAA Tournament, but the Ducks were upset in the first round by No. 12 seed Belmont, and the Wildcats failed to capitalize on a sub-regional at home, losing in the second round to North Carolina.

Injuries impacted both teams, and Arizona couldn’t find a go-to offensive player like Aari McDonald in the first season after her departure.

We’re also putting Oregon State (17-14) and Arizona State (12-14) in this category.

The Beavers missed out on the NCAA field for the first time since 2013, instead reaching the WNIT quarterfinals. The Sun Devils sat out the postseason for just the second time since 2000, after which coach Charli Turner Thorne retired following 25 seasons.

— Couldn’t ask much more: USC (12-16), California (11-13) and Washington (7-16) finished in the bottom three spots, more or less what was expected given new coaches for the Trojans and Huskies.

It’s worth noting that all Pac-12 teams finished in the top 100 of the NET rankings (out of 356 Division I teams), and eight were in the top 50. Cal and Washington were on the conference low end at No. 90 and No. 94.

— Special circumstance: Picked to finish third, UCLA (18-13) ended up in seventh place due to injuries so severe that they once took the Bruins below the minimum number needed to play, resulting in a forfeit vs. Oregon on Jan. 28.

Left out of the NCAAs, UCLA took the WNIT seriously, winning four games before losing 62-59 to eventual champion South Dakota State in the semifinals.

Coach Cori Close and her staff did a masterful job keeping the Bruins engaged and competitive, knowing all along that significant help is on the way.

Highly-rated reinforcements on the way

Five of the nation’s highest-ranked recruiting classes (per ESPNW Hoopgurlz) are entering the Pac-12 next season: No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Oregon State, No. 5 Stanford and No. 8 Arizona. (Washington is not far behind at No. 14.)

* Nine incoming Pac-12 freshmen played in the McDonald’s All-American Game on March 29, with UCLA’s Kiki Rice and Gabriela Jaquez as the leading scorers for the East and West teams. Rice, a guard from Washington D.C., is the Naismith High School National Player of the Year.

Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State also had two recruits in the McDonald’s game, while Arizona had one. That’s part of the reasoning behind ESPN placing five Pac-12 teams in its early top-25 rankings for 2022-23: Stanford led the group (No. 3), followed by Arizona (12th), Oregon (18th), Utah (19th) and UCLA (22nd).

* Not to diminish Stanford losing its guard trio, but Oregon, Colorado and Oregon State arguably are taking the biggest personnel hits.

The Ducks are losing Nyara Sabally early to the WNBA, while three 2020 recruits are transferring.

The Buffs must replace Mya Hollingshed and multiple transfers.

Meanwhile, forward Taylor Jones, an all-conference honoree two seasons ago, is the third Oregon State starter to enter the transfer portal, following Greta Kampschroeder and Kennedy Brown.

All-conference forward Jordyn Jenkins is transferring from USC but conceivably could stay within the conference.

* At minimum, 10 of the 15 players on the all-Pac-12 team are returning, including Stanford’s Cameron Brink and Haley Jones, the conference Player of the Year picks by the media and coaches.

* Cal’s Charmin Smith is the Pac-12 coach facing the most urgency to win given her 5-37 conference record in three seasons in charge.

* ASU is dealing with the ramifications of its coaching change from Turner Thorne to Natasha Adair, formerly at Delaware.

Guard Taya Hanson and forward Katelyn Levings are transferring to Oregon and Tulsa, where former ASU assistant Angie Nelp is the head coach.

WNBA draft coming up Monday

Sabally, the 6-foot-5 forward, almost certainly will be selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft on Monday, perhaps by Indiana (with one of the Fever’s four selections). Her sister Satou plays for the Dallas Wings.

Colorado’s Hollingshed and Stanford’s Hull show up in most projections as second- and third-round prospects. New Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard played at Stanford and might be interested in Hull if she’s still on the board late in the third.

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