- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Could it really be anybody but Stanford?
The first season of Pac-12 women's basketball seems destined for the same old ending: the mighty Cardinal hoisting a trophy and cutting down nets. The conference tournament opens Wednesday in Los Angeles.
The signs are certainly pointed in that direction. Stanford just finished an undefeated conference season -- its third in a row, in fact -- beating league foes by an average of 28.7 points in the second half of the season. The Cardinal defeated conference runner-up Cal by 25 points in Berkeley on Sunday.
Oh, and the Cardinal are playing to maintain their assumed No. 1 seed in the NCAA bracket, not to mention this is a great time of year to show your team is still improving.
"We just want to stay healthy," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.
But there are a few other Pac-12 schools with less modest goals after a bruising conference season in which a mere five games separated the fourth- through 11th-place teams.
Cal managed to separate itself as the clear No. 2 after going 13-4, with two losses coming to Stanford. The Bears took the Cardinal to overtime in 74-71 loss at Maples in January, but were smarting on Sunday night after Stanford came to Berkeley and beat them 86-61.
"We have to use this to make us the hungriest team going into this tournament," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
USC, meanwhile, is on the NCAA bubble with 18 wins after rallying to a 12-6 conference record. The Women of Troy were 7-2 in the second half of conference play, including an overtime win at Cal and a season sweep of UCLA.
But they have had a tough season, enduring a difficult nonconference run of losses to teams such as Nebraska, Georgia, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and a season-ending knee injury to senior guard Jacki Gemelos.
Now USC must either win the tournament title for the first time or add a couple more wins to its resume and hope there are enough at-large berths left over to get an NCAA spot for the first time since Michael Cooper took over as coach three years ago.
"If we don't get in, it will be our own doing," Cooper said. "If we don't get there, it's because of what we didn't get done. But we are going to take it one game at a time. Our seniors have never had the opportunity to play or go to the [tournament], and this is our opportunity to get there. We are frothing at the bit to be among those 64 teams."
Any other team is a true long shot, if the mess in the middle of this conference race is any indication.
Arizona State, finishing up its season under interim coach Joseph Anders, has had trouble finding its offense, and UCLA, last year's runner-up to the Cardinal, has been severely slowed by injuries.
Oregon State is the feel-good story of the year, breaking into the top half of the conference under Pac-12 coach of the year Scott Rueck.
New league members Utah and Colorado struggled to break into the upper tier of the conference. Utah was also a victim of multiple injuries, while Colorado stumbled after an 11-0 start coming into conference play.
The top-seeded Cardinal are healthy and are rolling behind the sister tandem of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, junior Joslyn Tinkle and guard Toni Kokenis, who put up 23 on Sunday against the Bears.
Senior Nneka Ogwumike, the not-so-surprising conference player of the year, was one of the three most dominant players in the country this season.
Chiney Ogwumike is much improved from her freshman season, a burgeoning star in her own right, while Tinkle has provided much needed offensive punch since joining the starting lineup early in the Pac-12 schedule. Kokenis, meanwhile, is playing through a nagging injury to give VanDerveer strong minutes at both ends of the floor.
Stanford has its sights set on a fifth straight trip to the Final Four, and with 75 straight wins against conference foes coming into this tournament, it doesn't appear any team is truly capable of getting in the Cardinal's way in Los Angeles.
"What's it going to take? Somebody is going to have to play a fantastic game, because Stanford is primed and ready," Cooper said. "They are really getting after it, and all eyes are on them. They are the hands-down favorite, but we can't worry about Stanford yet. We have to concentrate on our first opponent."
Michelle Smith is a contributor for espnW.
The Cardinal, heavy favorites in the Pac-12 tournament, are gunning for a No. 1 NCAA seed, while Cal and USC hope to make a case for getting in.