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Pac-12 preview: Huskies ready for another bite? Something ‘Bruin’ in LA

After two Pac-12 teams (Oregon State and Washington) shared a pair of glass slippers for the Final Four last season, can the conference repeat the magic?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Final Four-Washington vs Syracuse Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In a 2015-16 season where nothing was like the normal, the Pac-12 saw not one, but TWO of their teams make it to the “last dance”, the Final Four.

However, it wasn’t perennial powerhouse Stanford or Arizona State like most expected. The representatives were Oregon State and Washington, both teams making their debut in the premier event.

While Oregon State was picked to win the conference last season for the first time in program history, Washington was picked to finish sixth, so for both teams to get to the Final Four was a refreshing change of pace for the West Coast representative of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and SEC).

This season sees things coming back to normal, as #9 UCLA was chosen to finish first in the Pac-12 in both the coaches and media poll. Led by junior and preseason All-Pac-12 guard Jordin Canada, the Bruins do look like the best team in the conference, but it will be a pretty close race between them and Stanford, chosen to finish second for the second year in a row after being the perennial favorites for 15 years running.

Let’s get into each team by ranking and see how the conference stacks up.

1) UCLA (1st - Coaches; 1st - Media)

Jordin Canada. The stats alone don’t speak for her impact on the court.

Not only did she lead the Bruins in scoring, steals and minutes per game last season, she was a big factor in the team making their first Sweet 16 in 17 years. Not to say her teammates weren’t equally as good.

Junior Monique Billings, who was named Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 on both the basketball and academic teams, averaged 12.7 points last season (third on the team) and had nine double-doubles last season, registering five or more rebounds in 12 straight games. With nine letter winners and three starters returning to this year’s team, the Bruins have a pretty good foundation to build upon from last season.

2) Stanford (2nd - Coaches; 2nd - Media)

The #11-ranked Lady Cardinal will be looking to restore order in the Pac-12 this season. As mentioned above, Stanford had not only been the preseason favorite 15 years in a row, but in the 31 seasons that the Pac-12 has sponsored women’s basketball, the Lady Cardinal have either been outright or co-champion 23 times. Of the 12 teams in the conference, only five other teams have won twice or more.

Head coach Tara VanDerveer, going into her 31st (!) year as head coach of the Cardinal, will have plenty of firepower to choose from. With preseason All-Pac-12 senior Erica McCall, Kaylee Johnson, Karlie Samuelson and Briana Roberson leading the pack, the team has plenty of veteran leadership from a team who got to the Elite Eight WITHOUT a senior starter last season.

McCall, who was named the 23rd best player in women’s college basketball by espnW, led the team with 14.9 points last season, 9.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season, while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc. The scoring could be an issue, however. The second-leading scorer last season, Lili Thompson (14.7), left the team in July; behind Samuelson (9.7), no one else averaged more than six points a game.

3) WASHINGTON

After making it to their first-ever Final Four last season, the Huskies will be looking to show that last season was no fluke.

Senior Kelsey Plum, already the school’s all-time leading scorer, returns along with fellow senior starters Chantel Osahor and Katie Collier to give the Huskies their big three who shouldered most of the load in the NCAA Tournament, and will be expected to most of this season as well.

Plum, a unanimous All-Pac-12 selection, not only led the Pac-12, but was fourth in scoring last season with 25.9 points per game and led the nation in free throws made (266) and attempted (299), for an average of .890, fifth in the nation. Osahor, the NCAA Lexington Region MVP, broke the single-season school record for rebounds last season with 417.

4) ARIZONA STATE

The Sun Devils, last year’s Pac-12 co-regular season champions, go into the 2016-17 season having to prove that their predicted fourth-place finish is just that: a prediction.

Arizona State returns three senior starters in Sophie Brunner, Quinn Dornstauder and Kelsey Moos, and also welcome five freshmen from the 10th-ranked recruiting class of 2016.

Brunner, the school’s active leader in scoring, rebounds, assists AND steals, will be looked at again to be the focal point of the offense. Last season, Brunner led the team in scoring per game (10.7), rebounds (7.4), field goal percentage and steals while finishing third in assists.

5) OREGON STATE

Oregon State finished last season with a program-record 32 wins, shared the regular season championship with Arizona State (their second Pac-12 title in a row), and made the Final Four for the first time ever (losing to UConn), and yet both the coaches and media chose them to finish fifth. What more does this program need to do?

If Sydney Wiese has anything to say about it, the Beavers will repeat as the queens of the Pac-12. Wiese, who was named to the Preseason Watch List of the Nancy Lieberman Award (the top point guard in the country), is a three-time All-Pac-12 honoree, All-Tournament team selection and was on the NCAA Dallas All-Regional team. Wiese did all this last season while missing nine games with a hand injury, and still averaged 12.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

6) CALIFORNIA

The Golden Bears, fresh off a 10th-place finish that didn’t justify their talent, are hungry. And with head coach Lindsey Gottlieb now under contract through the 2020-21 season, Cal fans can rest their heads knowing they will have a consistent presence on the bench.

Cal brings back four starters from last year’s squad, including WBCA All-American and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Kristine Anigwe and senior Courtney Range, the two leading scorers on the team. Anigwe, who also was the USBWA National Freshman of the Year, averaged 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, achieving a double-double in 30 of the 31 games she played in. Range, ironically named, led the team in three-pointers made and attempted (142-420).

7) OREGON

Oregon, under head coach Kelly Graves, has improved each of the last three seasons, going from ninth to seventh, and came within two games of winning the WNIT, where they lost to eventual champion South Dakota. This season, Graves brings in the no. 3 recruiting class of 2016 to team up with his six letter winners.

Leading the young Oregon team is junior guard Lexi Bando and sophomore guard Maite Cazorla. Bando led the NCAA in three-point percentage, shooting 45.3 percent from behind the arc. Cazorla not only led the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio, total assists and assists per game, but finished with the second-most assists in OU single-season history (206).

8) UTAH

For head coach Lynne Roberts, 18 wins and a third-round appearance in the WNIT was a sign of progress, but not enough to stay content. Now starting her second season with the Utes, Roberts has had a chance to jell with her team and form a more cohesive bond, which the team hopes to turn into better things.

Despite losing four-year starter Danielle Rodriguez, the Utes bring back four starters, including junior center Emily Potter. Potter, who was also an All-Pac-12 All-Conference team selection last season, led the team in scoring (15.1), rebounds (10.2) and blocks (2.5 per game).

9) USC

USC, despite the low ranking, has a lot to look forward to this upcoming season. Not only does the team bring back established starters in seniors Jordan Adams, Courtney Jaco and Alexis Lloyd, but the Women of Troy will suit up FIVE players 6’3” or taller, the first time in program history.

Head coach and Naismith Hall-of-Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke will be looking to improve on last year’s 19-13 record and bring them back to the NCAA Tournament, which she accomplished in her first year as coach back in the 2013-14 season.

10) WASHINGTON STATE

While the Cougars took a step back last season, going 14-16 and finishing ninth, the Cougars did get to celebrate their first-ever WNBA Draft selection, when Lia Galdeira was chosen by the Washington Mystics with the 19th overall pick this past summer. This season, the team brings in five freshmen to go with returning All-Pac-12 Freshman Borislava Hristova.

The Cougars, despite returning four starters, will definitely need scoring help. Besides Hristova, who averaged 16.8 points per game last season, no other member of the team averaged more than 6.8.

11) COLORADO

After finishing last in the Pac-12 last season with a 7-23 overall record (2-16 conference) and losing leading scorer and rebounder Jamee Swan, the Buffaloes are looking to rebuild.

Enter new head coach JR Payne. Hired at the end of March, Payne inherits a Colorado team that is missing a lot of interior presence (only one player on the team is taller than 6’3”) but brings back four seniors, including second-leading scorer and team captain Haley Smith.

12) ARIZONA

Five years removed from their last postseason appearance, the Wildcats brought back a familiar face to bring the team back from the bottom of the Pac-12. Adia Barnes, Arizona’s all-time leading scorer, and WNBA Champion, will be taking on her first head coaching job after serving on Washington’s bench as an assistant for the last five season.

Barnes does not come to an empty-handed team, however. Arizona retained 12 of the 15 players from last season’s 13-19 team, including both leading scorers: seniors LaBrittney Jones (12.6 ppg) and Malena Washington (10.8 ppg).

The regular season starts on November 11.