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Pac-12 Tournament Preview: It’s Stanford and everyone else

Can anyone in the Pac-12 stop the Cardinal from winning their 15th conference tournament in 21 tries?

Syndication: The Register Guard Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2021 season culminated with two Pac-12 teams battling for a national championship and ending within one point of each other as Stanford edged Arizona its third NCAA title. Now the Cardinal look to extend their Pac-12 — and NCAA — supremacy into another March in this year’s conference tournament, which will begin on Wednesday, March 2.

The top four teams

Stanford dominated the conference during the regular season, capturing its 25th regular-season title by going undefeated in the Pac-12 for the eighth time. The Cardinal are led by last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones, who has added more of playmaking role this season as the team functions without a true point guard. The junior forms a dynamic frontcourt pairing with sophomore Cameron Brink, another All-America candidate who has remained stout defensively while attempting to expand her offensive game. When shooters like Lexie and Lacie Hull and Hannah Jump get going, Stanford can be downright terrifying.

The next three teams in the conference standings all had six losses apiece during Pac-12 play, starting with the Oregon Ducks. After starting conference play on an 8-1 tear, Oregon went .500 the rest of the way (5-5). The Ducks are losing the math game as of late, surrendering too many free throws and threes, a problem even their efficient offense can’t always solve.

Oregon’s best win of the season came just a few weeks ago on Feb. 9, an 83-30 laugher over Washington State that seemed to suggest both programs were headed in opposite directions. Instead, the Cougars rallied to win five of their final six, their lone loss coming by seven on the road in Palo Alto. Washington State is now in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row and the third time ever, led by the Leger-Walker Sisters, Krystal and Charlisse. The Cougars are currently a 10-seed in Charlie Creme’s latest bracket for ESPN and could cement their place with a strong showing in Vegas.

Rounding out the top four is last year’s NCAA runner up, the Wildcats. It’s been an uneven 2022 for Arizona, though going undefeated in 2021 — including a win over Louisville — means the Wildcats still have No. 3 seed in the latest projections. Holding on to that position could be difficult with leading scorer Cate Reese likely unavailable for this week’s tournament, but don’t expect veteran Sam Thomas and Co. to go down without a fight.

The rest of the field

No Pac-12 teams are currently on the bubble, so the bottom six teams in the conference need to win the tournament outright in order to earn an NCAA bid. The group with the best chance of doing so might be UCLA, the seventh-seeded team in what is currently a six-bid league. The Bruins start with a favorable matchup against USC and wouldn’t see Stanford until the final.

Keep an eye on Washington as well. The Huskies went 2-12, yes, but they only lost four games by double figures and won two of their last three. If Washington can figure out a way to execute in the clutch for a few days, this team might be able to go on a run.

The problem for the Huskies is that they start against Colorado, who has been rolling, led by super senior Mya Hollingshed (14.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game). The Buffaloes are currently projected as an 8-seed in the Big Dance. Utah is chugging along as well, solidly in tournament position, and gets a first-round date against struggling California.

Pac-12 Tournament Schedule

All games will be held at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, home to the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces (TV info in parentheses)

First round — Wednesday, March 2 (Pac-12 Networks)

Game 1: No. 5 Colorado vs. No. 12 Washington, 12 p.m. PT
Game 2: No. 8 Oregon State vs. No. 9 Arizona State, 2:30 p.m. PT
Game 3: No. 7 UCLA vs. No. 10 USC, 6 p.m. PT
Game 4: No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 California, 8:30 p.m. PT

Quarterfinals — Thursday, March 3 (Pac-12 Networks)

Game 5: No. 4 Arizona vs. 5/12 Winner, 12 p.m. PT
Game 6: No. 1 Stanford vs. 8/9 Winner, 2:30 p.m. PT
Game 7: No. 2 Oregon vs. 7/10 Winner, 6 p.m. PT
Game 8: No. 3 Washington State vs. 6/11 Winner, 8:30 p.m. PT

Semifinals — Friday, March 4 (Pac-12 Networks)

Game 9 (Semifinal 1): Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. PT
Game 10 (Semifinal 2): Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 8:30 p.m. PT

Final — Sunday, March 6 (ESPN2)

Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3 p.m. PT