Metcalfe – Pac-12 WBB early forecast: Utah and UCLA are the teams to beat entering the 2023-24 season

Lauren Betts (AP Photo/Darren Yamashita)

By Jeff Metcalfe

Charisma Osborne and Lauren Betts.

With Osborne returning for a fifth season and the 6-foot-7 Betts transferring from Stanford, UCLA is the clear Pac-12 offseason front-runner through Monday. The transfer window doesn’t close until May 11, so more portal movement is ahead. But it will be hard to top what the Bruins have done to strengthen a 27-win team coming off an NCAA Sweet 16 season.

Osborne, a three-time all-conference guard, withdrew from the WNBA Draft in early April, five days before she might have been a first-round pick.

Then, on April 18, Betts announced Westwood as her transfer destination after just one season as a backup at Stanford.

The move made sense: UCLA was among Betts’ finalists coming out of high school in Colorado. She and guard Kiki Rice were the top two recruiting prospects nationally in 2022, according to HoopGurlz. Now, both are with the Bruins, who also return three others from a class ranked No. 1 nationally.

Betts gives UCLA the size that was missing in a 59-43 loss to South Carolina in the Sweet 16, even with 6-foot-3 Brynn Masikewich in the transfer portal. The Bruins have also added McDonald’s All-American prep guard Amanda Muse.

Osborne discussed her draft decision process with the Hotline.

“I talked to a bunch of different people that had a bunch of different perspectives,” she said. “I think what I heard the most is it’s a risk you’re going to have to take to go to the WNBA now or stay in college, but also either option is not a bad option.

“That was one piece of advice I got from a lot of people because obviously the WNBA is amazing and that’s always been my dream. But then also coming back to UCLA, getting my master’s degree, that is also an amazing opportunity as well.”

Osborne said her NIL (name, image, likeness) earning potential, which could be greater than what she would make in base salary as a WNBA rookie, was one of the “perks of staying” — not a main factor.

What mattered most to Osborne was experiencing a second straight “normal college year” after three impacted at various levels by the pandemic.

“I don’t think I was quite ready to leave,” she said. “I still wanted to experience a little bit more.

“The main reason was because of my teammates and the coaches and the people here. I knew this upcoming year is going to be so much fun. Once you leave college, you can’t really get those years back. The WNBA will still be there and it’s still my dream. I want to play in it so badly, but that’s going to be there next year.”

As for Betts, Osborne joked with UCLA coach Cori Close that she expects her assists average to jump from a career-best 3.9 average (in 2021-22) to six per game. Her career scoring average is 15.2 points.

“Obviously (Betts) is really tall, and we played against her last year,” Osborne said.

“She was hard to guard. She’s 6-foot-7, and she’s really good at finishing around the rim. We’re very happy we don’t have to guard her, at least in games. She will help so much in the paint and being a really good rim protector.”

Stanford not ‘portal heaven’
For Pac-12 co-champion Stanford, Betts isn’t the only transfer portal entry.

Agnes Emma-Nnopu, who started 11 games, and Indya Nivar also are looking for new homes. And Jana Van Gytenbeek transferred to Baylor after the 2021-22 season.

“In some ways, I think it’s unfortunate a little bit because one of the criticisms of young people right now is their lack of resilience,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer told the Hotline.

“(The portal) is kind of an easy out instead of improving, getting better, being committed to a place and a team and a program. It’s too easy to say, ‘This isn’t working, I’m out of here.’

“But this is the world we live in now. You’ve got to work really hard. It challenges you as a coach to do the best job you can.”

Stanford is not “portal heaven,” VanDerveer said, on the incoming side.

“We’re not a place that can rely on recruiting players out of the portal. That’s not going to happen. We need to have players that value a Stanford education No. 1 and buy into the process of development and being part of a team. We don’t have a lot of graduate programs and incredibly tough academic standards.”

Early forecast for 2023-24
The Hotline’s initial projections for the Pac-12 race next season …

1. Utah
Last season: 27-5 overall, 15-3 Pac-12 (first – tied)
Comment: No one played eventual national champion LSU tougher in the NCAA Tournament than the Utes, losing 66-63 in the Sweet 16 after two missed free throws with a chance to take the lead with five seconds remaining. All of Utah’s key players return, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili and Gianna Kneepkens. Transfer additions are Maty Wilke (from Wisconsin) and Alyssa Blanck (BYU). The Utes are No. 2 nationally behind Connecticut in ESPN’s early top 25 for next season.

Last season: 27-10 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 (fourth – tied)
Comment: Betts has three years of eligibility remaining. Swapping her for Masikewich is a net plus for the Bruins, who also have 6-foot-4 Emily Bessoir and 6-foot-4 freshman Muse in the frontcourt. Osborne and Rice are among the best backcourt duos in the country, with Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez due for more minutes as sophomores. The pieces could add up to UCLA’s first Final Four appearance in its final Pac-12 season.

3. Stanford
Last season: 29-6 overall, 15-3 Pac-12 (first – tied)
Comment: Even with Haley Jones moving on to the WNBA and the transfers, there is much to like about the Cardinal, starting with All-America forward Cameron Brink and Hannah Jump returning for a fifth season. Talana Lepolo’s steep learning curve as a freshman point guard figures to pay off, and there will be opportunity for McDonald’s All-American wing Courtney Ogden and perhaps other incoming freshmen.

4. Colorado
Last season: 25-9 overall, 13-5 Pac-12 (third)
Comment: Colorado advancing to the Sweet 16 and making it tough on Iowa (a 10-point loss) reinforced the Buffs’ best Pac-12 season and their short-term future with Jaylyn Sherrod, Quay Miller, Frida Formann and Aaronette Vonleh among those returning. Maddie Nolan, a grad transfer from Michigan, adds to the frontcourt depth. CU also has a pair of four-star recruits incoming.

5. USC
Last season: 21-10 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 (fourth – tied)
Comment: The Trojans lost two players, Kadi Sissoko and Okako Adika, to the WNBA (as third-round picks) but added Gatorade National High School Player of the Year Juju Watkins to a lineup that features all-Pac-12 returnee Rayah Marshall. Incoming transfer Dominique Onu (from UCLA) and Ivy League grad transfers McKenzie Forbes (Harvard) and Kayla Padilla (Penn) should add to USC’s momentum. Watkins was co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game March 28 with 25 points, five rebounds and five steals.

6. Washington State
Last season: 23-11 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 (seventh)
Comment: The Cougars went from the high of winning the Pac-12 tournament to the low of a third consecutive NCAA first-round exit at the end of the winningest season in school history. Three-time all-conference guard Charlisse Leger-Walker is among four returning starters with Ula Motuga as the only departure. Astera Tuhina became a key piece of the rotation as a freshman on a team laden with international players.

7. Oregon
Last season: 20-15 overall, 7-11 Pac-12 (eighth – tied)
Comment: With starting guards Endyia Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao (bound for powerhouse South Carolina, as of Monday) in the transfer portal, it’s hard to make a case for the Ducks fully rebounding from their first non-NCAA Tournament season since 2016. (They reached the WNIT quarterfinals.) Grace VanSlooten and Chance Gray made the Pac-12’s all-freshman team, and 6-foot-8 Phillipina Kyei returns. The Ducks have a trio of elite incoming freshmen led by McDonald’s All-American Sofia Bell; they also added junior college transfer Bella Hamel.

8. Arizona
Last season: 22-10 overall, 11-7 Pac-12 (fourth – tied)
Comment: There’s been more roster churn at Arizona than anywhere else in the Pac-12 since an NCAA second-round exit — some of the exits likely resulting from a recruiting class that includes McDonald’s All-Americans Jada Williams, Breya Cunningham and Montaya Dew, who was in school this past semester. The Wildcats beat West Virginia in the NCAAs and since added Isis Beh from the Mountaineers, with Lauren Fields transferring the other direction.

9. Washington
Last season: 19-15 overall, 7-11 Pac-12 (eighth – tied)
Comment: Washington and Oregon State are the only Pac-12 programs with no outgoing transfers, at least through Monday. The Huskies, coming off a WNIT Final Four appearance, return Lauren Schwartz, Dalayah Daniels and Elle Ladine and add a well-regarded recruiting class led by guards Sayvia Sellers and Ari Long. Sellers is Alaska’s high school career scoring leader (2,651 points) and never lost a game in the state (79-0) and is the state’s high school career scoring leader.

10. Oregon State
Last season: 13-18 overall, 4-14 Pac-12 (10th – tied)
Comment: Missing out on the postseason for a second straight year certainly won’t sit well with long-time coach Scott Rueck. Whether the Beavers have enough returnees in Talia von Oelhoffen, 6-foot-9 Jelena Mitrovic, Raegan Beers (the Pac-12 Freshman and Sixth Player of the Year) and Timea Gardiner is still to be determined. Dominika Paurova, a former Minnesota signee, and 6-foot-7 Sela Heide, a graduate transfer from California, are among the additions.

11. Arizona State
Last season: 8-20 overall, 1-17 Pac-12 (12th)
Comment: Year Two under coach Natasha Adair almost has to be smoother based on improved continuity and health. Only Jaddan Simmons remains from the Charli Turner Thorne era after three transfers and an injury redshirt. Forward Jalyn Brown transferred from Louisville, joining returners Tyi Skinner, Treasure Hunt and Simmons. Morasha Wiggins, a 2022 transfer from North Carolina, did not play this past season due to injury.

12. California
Last season: 13-17 overall, 4-14 Pac-12 (10th – tied)
Comment: Losing Jayda Curry (16.9 points per game over two seasons) to Louisville is a big hit for a team likely needing to win for coach Charmin Smith to keep her job. Another starter, Evelien Lutje Schipholt, also is in the portal. Kemery Martin and Michelle Onyiah are the top returners, with Ioanna Krimili arriving as a grad transfer from San Francisco to help fill the Curry void. Australia guard Lulu Laditan-Twidale likely will have an immediate role.

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