Although most women's basketball fans will dismiss the 2012 Pac-12 women's basketball tournament as relatively insignificant on the national landscape, Women's Basketball State's "State Ratings" have the Pac-12 Conference ranked as the third best in the nation.
So the conference tournament - streamed live via YouTube - is a great opportunity for the Pac-12 to prove whether it's worthy of its State Rating.
As this is the first full season that these women's basketball ratings have been made available, it will be interesting to see how these ratings actually play out during post-season play. Nevertheless, the State Ratings are intriguing because approximately 2/3 of the composite score assigned to a team is performance (or process) based as opposed to outcome based (click here for a full explanation of State Ratings). In other words, what matters is not only that you beat a team but how well you played while doing so.
Anyway, without getting into a conversation about whether the Pac-12 is actually better than the Atlantic Coast Conference - which is, of course, the opposite of what some national analysts might argue - the bigger point might be that the Pac-12 features better basketball than it's often given credit for.
New 12-team format
In its first season of 12-team play, the top four teams in the Pac-12 have been granted byes while the remaining eight will face off today for the right to advance and play the awaiting top seeds.
These bottom eight have pretty much played their way out of contention for a 2012 NCAA Tournament bid (which is at least part of what makes it striking to rank the Pac-12 #3 in the nation), but as teams with relatively new coaching staffs and a number of young players this experience can be valuable regardless of whether they end up in the CBI, WNIT, or just headed home.
Day 1 Schedule (all times Pacific)
Brief previews and players to watch
Game 1: (8) Washington vs. (9) Oregon
One thing that you have to appreciate about Washington is their significant improvement this season.
Coach Kevin McGuff's first season in Seattle has been Washington's first winning season since 2006-07, which has to be refreshing for Huskies fans after years of frustration.
The coaching change has unquestionably made a difference, but so has the improvement of senior center Regina Rogers and the arrival of Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Jazmine Davis. Davis finished fourth in the conference in scoring this season while averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game in conference play, which was the highest of any guard in conference play.
That Washington did as well as they did without the services of injured shooting guard Kristi Kingma is somewhat surprising and sets up high anticipation for next season.
Oregon has been up and down in the Paul Westhead era, but point guard Nia Jackson is a player worth watching. Jackson has had a down year after a seemingly slow recovery from injury, but her impact on the team was made pretty clear in her absence (due to illness) during an 18-point loss to Utah in their final game of the regular season. Jackson is hoping to be back for today's game and her presence could be the difference in the outcome.
Game 2: (5) UCLA vs. (12) Arizona
Similar to Washington, you pretty much have to start by commending the coaching job that first-year coach Cori Close did this season.
Close was dealt a pretty tough hand with last season's leading rebounder Jasmine Dixon out for the year due to injury and leading scorer Darxia Morris having graduated. That put an inordinate amount of pressure on versatile junior forward Markel Walker this season, who saw her usage percentage increase from 21.59% last season to a team-high 29.41% this season. Although the result of her increased usage has also resulted in a dip in shooting efficiency, she's also become a 33.33% 3-point shooter (+11% increase over last season) while more than doubling her attempts. And with her improved shooting range, Walker is now able to do a little bit of absolutely everything on the court from scoring to rebounding to passing to defending multiple positions.
Arizona is also a team without its leading rebounder and scorer from last season in the form of alum Ify Ibekwe, but left with a talented junior to lead the team in point guard Davellyn Whyte. Although Whyte's field goal percentage dropped a bit due to the small increase in usage, she maintained a true shooting percentage of over 50% primarily due to a 41.6% free throw rate while averaging a team-high 17 points per game. With Whyte's combination of scoring, efficiency, and rebounding (7.8 per game in conference, tied for most of any guard), one could argue that she's the most dangerous perimeter player in the conference.
Game 3: (7) Utah vs. (10) Colorado
The two newcomers to the conference face off in the first round with an opportunity to advance and this game should be competitive - strangely, the road team won both of their head to head matchups during conference play. However, competitive doesn't necessarily mean "exciting" - both games were also rather slow paced low efficiency games.
Junior Chucky Jeffery is the player to watch in this one, as she was named to both the Pac-12 All-Defensive and All-Conference teams in her first year competing in the conference. Jeffery was the only Buffaloes player to average double figures in scoring this season with 15.2 points per game. Utah, in contrast, is a far more balanced team with four players in double figures whose biggest strength is in holding opponents shooting efficiency down to 36.6% which unsurprisingly is what helped them beat Colorado in Boulder.
Game 4: (6) Oregon St. Beavers vs. (11) Washington St. Cougars
It's conceivable that the Beavers could leave L.A. tied for their best overall record in at least the last decade. They've split with WSU this season and already beat the USC Women of Troy - who they would play should they advance - at Galen once.
That's a pretty remarkable feat for second-year coach Scott Rueck, who has resuscitated a program that won a total of four conference games in the last two years. Fittingly for the way they've played under Rueck, no single player has stood out in their two wins against WSU. However, OSU comes into the tournament having lost 4 of their last 5 games while losing the offensive rebounding percentage battle in their last six games since dominating the boards against WSU in Pullman.
Meanwhile, the Cougars have controlled the offensive boards well despite losing 8 of their last 9 games. Unsurprisingly then, their offensive rebounding was a significant statistical factor in winning their first meeting with OSU in double overtime and is likely to be significant if they wish to get an upset today.
To watch the games, visit the Pac-12's YouTube site.
Click here to download a printable bracket. For more on the tournament, visit the conference's 2012 Pac-12 conference tournament website. For game-by-game statistics, visit WBB State's Pac-12 conference tournament page.