2010-11 Pac-10 Preview: A Conference Poised To Restore Its National Reputation

Cal and USC have their sights set on the tournament last year after sitting somewhat on the bubble last season. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

I said this at the end of last season but it bears repeating: the Pac-10 will be much better this season.

Not only are there a number of young rising stars poised to make a name for themselves this season, but there are a few young coaches who are developing as well and capable of taking their teams to the next level.

After putting two teams in the tournament last season (Stanford and UCLA), boasting the reigning WNIT champion (California), and having one team who might have been in the NCAA tournament last year had they not had injuries and some tough losses (USC), the Pac-10 could well find itself with four teams in the tournament this season and stat restoring the reputation of the conference after a down year (with some favorable breaks of course). Cal, UCLA, and USC all have starters this season that will be returning for at least another season, meaning this season could be the beginning of a larger ascent on the national scene.

Non-conference play - beginning this weekend for most teams - will obviously go a long way to determining just how good this conference can be, but for now we'll do the following:

  • Present the five tiers of the conference, with the top and bottom tiers containing single teams.
  • Present rankings based on preseason polls.
  • Identify players who might not be "stars" in every instance, but could make vital contributions.
  • Highlight content from the other SBN sites that have provided women's basketball coverage in the past.

Tier I: The National Championship contender

1. Stanford (SBN coverage: Rule of Tree)

Coaches: #1 Media: #1 | 2009-10 conference record: 18-0 | Key player to watch: Jeanette Pohlen 

On Dishin and Swishin's NCAA Top 10 preview predictions earlier today, he predicted that Stanford would be the national champion once again.

And we know what Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen can do game in and game out and Chiney Ogwumike has already drawn a comparison to a young Sophia Young with more size and perimeter skill, point guard Jeanette Pohlen might be the key player who comes under the most scrutiny as the season goes on.

Dishin & Swishin: Who Will Cut 'Em Down in April? 2010-11 NCAA Top 10 Predictions
1.          Stanford

It's time.  Coach Tara VanDerveer ‘s team is loaded with talent once again.  The frontcourt may have two of the top 10 players in the country with senior Kayla Pedersen, and junior Nneka Ogwumike.   They lost Jayne Appel, but they have size in the post to combat her loss defensively, and when you add in little sister Chiney Ogwumike to Nneka, the forwards are going to score and rebound in a big way.  For years they've heard about backcourt weakness, but Jeanette Pohlen is a senior who has grown each year.  If anyone questioned her speed, heart or big play ability that was dispelled with end to end dash to beat Xavier in the tournament last year.  She can get the job done.  And this will be the year the Cardinal get it done.

As he alludes to later in his piece, there are a lot of teams who will be challenging for that National Championship this year and UConn has to remain the favorite for now with Maya Moore, but Stanford has a chance to put together a very special season.

Tier II: The Challenger

2. UCLA (SBN coverage: BruinsNation.com)

Coaches: #2/Media: #2 | 2009-10 conference record: 15-3 | Player to Watch: Markel Walker

If I had to pick one team that might beat Stanford in conference play this year after an 18-0 conference performance last year, it's UCLA.

And it all starts with Nikki Caldwell's frantic, shape-shifting, full court defensive pressure that can almost make you feel exhausted just thinking about playing against it...or executing it. But here's the thing that can't go over looked about this team: they're returning most of their rotation and last year's newcomers - Jasmine Dixon and Markel Walker - now have a year under their belts.

As good as Walker was last year, she's the player to watch primarily because she could and should get better.

UCLA Women's Basketball 2010-11 Season Preview (Part 2)
I believed one of the most improved players this year will be Markel. Now I bet most of you are saying how can one of our best players get better. Well looking back at last year, Markel made a lot of freshman mistakes with regards to passing and court fundamentals. Several of her passes were long or she would fake out even her teammates with where she was going to toss the rock. If she gets her passing fundamentals down she could open up a lot of plays that will keep the defense honest with regards to her drive and kick out abilities. This will only lead to more points as the others will have better looks from midrange as UCLA's opponents try to stop Markel as she drives.

What makes Walker special is that she can do a little bit of everything, even when she was somewhat inconsistent as a freshman. Everything means everything from passing to being the point of the team's swarming press. Caldwell has clearly shown that she knows how to maximize her talent and she has a gem in Walker on her hands that could eventually carry this team deep into the tournament.


Tier III: Tournament hopefuls

3. USC

Coaches: #3 Media: #4 | 2009-10 conference record: 12-6 | Player to Watch: Jacki Gemelos

Certainly coach Michael Cooper brought a buzz to USC last season, but this year he has one more weapon in his arsenal: Jacki Gemelos.

We didn't get to see Gemelos much last season after she finally returned from injury and when she did there just wasn't much time for her to gel with perimeter player Ashley Corral and Briana Gilbreath. With the three of them able to run the offense, score, and defend, all they need is someone to step up and rebound consistently. One person they'll obviously be looking for to provide that spark inside is Cassie Harberts.

Expectations high for fortified USC
...the Women of Troy brought in a nationally ranked recruiting class that Cooper said he believes will make an immediate impact.

“[Freshman forward Cassie] Harberts will definitely come in and contribute with some size underneath and a basketball IQ that is out of this world,” Cooper said. “[Freshman guard] Len’Nique Brown will give us a legitimate backup point guard that can create some offense for us in transition.”

Cooper is not the only one impressed with the new additions. Gemelos expects Harberts, one of the top recruits in the country, to contend for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

“I think [Cassie] is that good,” she said. “It’s really nice to have another post presence inside for us guards.”

While UCLA has an advantage over USC in that they have a year of experience under their belt as a unit, there's no reason to count USC out with the amount of talent they have. If they can challenge UCLA or Stanford, it will be a testament not only to their talent, but also

4. Cal (SBN coverage: CaliforniaGoldenBlogs.com)

Coaches: #4 Media: #3 | 2009-10 conference record: 11-7 | Player to Watch: Eliza Pierre

Everyone has high expectations for Cal this season and for good reason: in two years, this might be the most talented team in the conference top to bottom, especially with the way coach Joanne Boyle recruits. But their biggest challenge in moving up the standings will be finding a way to leapfrog any one of the three teams above them that are returning experienced players. I'm probably more aligned with the media poll on this one than the coaches poll in that I agree that the contest between Cal and USC is close.

There are a ton of players that have the potential to step up on this team, but Pierre is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing as a tenacious defender who has been working on her jumpshot over the summer.

Cal Women's Basketball Preview Part 2 of 4: The Team
Eliza has the most obvious strength of any Bear – but also the most obvious weakness.  Her defense is something special.  She’s quick, instinctual and daring and her defense was critical in a number of different games last year.  But until Eliza develops at least a mediocre jump shot opposing defenses will be able to sag towards the paint on Cal’s bigs and dare her to shoot.  Eliza did grow into the offense as the year went on, and her ball movement and passing should be strengths this year.  Her fearlessness while attacking on defense and offense always make her exciting to watch.

Nobody is going to replace Alexis Gray-Lawson's prolific scoring. And all of their young returners should be expected to improve. But Pierre has the chance to make the biggest leap if she can show a consistent jumpshot against top competition.

5. Arizona State

Coaches: #5 Media: #5 | 2009-10 conference record: 9-9 | Player to Watch: Dymond Simon

Boyle mentioned that the conference was starting to become top-heavy in terms of teams capable of challenging Stanford and when I mentioned Cal, UCLA, and USC as that next tier of teams after Stanford, she made sure that we nobody counted ASU out.

And the primary reason has to be Dymond Simon, who returns for senior year after recovering from knee surgery last season as a redshirt. What's most important about her return is that she should remedy - or at least help - one of their major struggles last year with the help of a coach who knows how to win.

Arizona State: Lack of Consistency, Discipline Plagues "A Young Team Trying Too Hard"
Last season, ASU started out 0-2 in conference play before going 15-1 the rest of the way en route to an impressive tournament run. When she took over as head coach of ASU in 1996, she inherited a team that had only made one tournament appearance in 13 years.

She has experience making things happen and every reason to remain positive as she tries to turn this into a young team playing too hard to a young team playing well.

"We’ll try to stay positive and keep teaching and working hard," said Turner Thorne. "We got a lot of really good young players – I think our posts are doing a lot of good things. It’s just hard because the perimeter game is so inexperienced that we can’t really capitalize on our post play. But hopefully we’ll get better each and every week."

And it's fitting that Boyle made sure to acknowledge ASU - if for some reason Cal's inexperience gets the best of them as ASU's did last year, Cal could very easily find themselves finishing a bit lower than people expect.

 

Tier IV: Hopefuls

6. Arizona

Coaches: #7 Media: #6 | 2009-10 conference record: 6-12 | Player to Watch: Soana Lucet

If there is one team I'd tab as a wild card, it would be Arizona. The main reason is sophomore guard Davellyn Whyte. Whyte hasn't necessarily garnered significant national attention yet. But she should definitely have the attention of Pac-10 coaches by now as potentially one of the most dynamic perimeter scorers in the conference, with Alexis Gray-Lawson and Taylor Lilley having graduated. She has a strong build, the ability to get to the basket, and the ability to create for others.

Yet while Whyte is the reason to be excited about watching Arizona and Ify Ibekwe is poised to have a standout senior season, Soana Lucet might be the player whose emergence could make this a strong team.

Pac-10 Week in Review: Is Stanford Just Bored?

And with Whyte having an impressive season as a scorer and forward Ify Ibekwe leading the team in rebounding, perhaps transfer teammate Soana Lucet’s 13 points and 7.1 rebounds doesn’t stand out.

However, I first noticed Lucet during Arizona’s 66-59 loss to Washington. What grabbed my attention on the first play of the game was that Washington center Regina Rogers threw herself into Lucet to establish position on the post and Lucet really didn’t give much ground. And that’s what’s impressive about Lucet – she does a lot of little things offensively and defensively that make the difference between winning and losing.

7. Oregon

Coaches: #6 Media: #7 | 2009-10 conference record: 7-11 | Player to Watch: Nia Jackson

Paul Ball was certainly fun, but once Paul Westhead got into conference play it faltered because they weren't the strongest defensive team and if Micaela Cocks and Taylor Lilley weren't filling it up, the team struggled to win games.

As important as junior forward Amanda Johnson will be to this team, junior point guard Nia Jackson will be essential to leading Westhead's attack.

Oregon point guard Nia Jackson absolutely shredded UCLA's press in the first half - with her speed and athleticism, she was able to go right by oncoming defenders tight roping the sidelines or changing direction in mid court. She sees gaps in the defense extremely well and picks her spots to turn on the speed, drawing fouls that led to 6 first half free throws.

Caldwell put an end to that in the second half.

"Well Jackson, her foot speed is unbelievable - she's a kid that really does a great job at pushing tempo and she's one of the best in our conference," said Caldwell. "I thought Nina Earl came off the bench for us and she's one of our faster guards so she gave us a great look in matching her foot speed and not allowing her to get momentum. The other thing I told our kids was don't foul her - make her make the play, don't help off on the shooters, and so we kind of responded in that regard and played smarter, if you will, on her."

Where they might need more out of Jackson this season is in the three point shooting department with Cocks and Lilley graduated - if she can more of a perimeter threat to help make this offense go, there will be exciting times in their new arena. But they also have to rebound to run and Johnson will obviously be a big part of that.

8. Washington (SBN coverage: SwishAppeal.com)

Coaches: #8 Media: #8t | 2009-10 conference record: 7-11| Player to Watch: Sarah Morton

Washington was picked last in the polls last season and the fact that they finished tied for sixth was actually one of the more pleasant surprises of the conference...and put talk of Tia Jackson being on the hot seat on hold, at the very least. But losing Sara Mosiman and Sami Whitcomb are big losses that coach Tia Jackson says will be filled by the trio of guard Kristi Kingma, point guard Sarah Morton, and center Regina Rogers. 

The player with the most pressure to step up as a leader and player is probably Sarah Morton.

Five Preseason Questions: How can Washington build off last season?
Morton did improve her turnover ratio during conference play, but it was still over 25% compared to her assist ratio of 21.5%. Last off-season, they talked a lot about adding strength to help her become more of a "north-south" point guard as opposed to an "east-west" point guard. But with increased minutes as the starting point guard, her turnovers increased while her assists didn't. Her growth as a starter this season will be critical to the team's success whether they try to play an uptempo game or get the ball into Rogers on the block.

9. Washington State

Coaches: #9 Media: #8t | 2009-10 conference record: 3-15 | Player to Watch: Rosetta Adzasu

This team probably has more talent than their record shows as they lost a number of close games last year and played just about everyone tough. The big issue with them last season is that their highest volume shooters were extremely inefficient.

In Defense of the Pac-10: Underclassmen Pave the Way for Brighter Future
...statistically, KiKi Moore was arguably only the second most effective freshman on her own team - freshman center Carly Noyes was arguably the bigger statistical contributor due to Moore's much higher turnover percentage (22.42%) and much lower field goal percentage (38% eFg). Along with sophomores April Cook and Jazmine Perkins - both of whom also struggled with their shooting, Perkins with a 20.24% turnover percentage - the team has plenty of potential for growth - they are young, athletic, and have shown that they can play with most teams in the conference despite glaring flaws from growing pains.

The player to watch might be Rosetta Adzasu, who transferred after KiKi Moore transferred out. More than anything they will need someone - especially Cook and Perkins - to find a way to make shots more often. They can run with just about anyone in the conference, but they would do everything right except put shots down - against Oregon last season, they missed a number of wide open fast break layups.

If they can put those easy shots down, this could be an extremely dangerous team and could surprise some people as cross-state rivals Washington did last year.

Tier V: Rebuilding

10. Oregon State (SBN coverage: BuildingTheDam.com)

Coaches: #10 Media: #10 | 2009-10 conference record: 2-16 | Person to Watch: Scott Rueck

After all the controversy of last season that pretty much continued through the off-season, this is clearly a rebuilding year for Oregon State and it's not a stretch to say that wins will likely be harder to come by this season than last with only two returning players. So the issue becomes not how well any of the players - including senior El Sara Greer - perform but how new coach Scott Rueck approaches this long-term process of essentially building a Pac-10 program from scratch.

Oregon St. Picks Up Pacific Coach
Scott Rueck (shown at left, with Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis) becomes just the fifth head coach in Oregon State women's basketball history, coming from George Fox College in Newberg, a Division III school.

Rueck was 283-88 (.763) in 14 seasons as the Bruins coach, and posted a winning record every season, topped by a perfect season and winning the Division III National Championship in the 2008-09 campaign.

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