Last season, the Utah Utes and Stanford Cardinal stood at the top of the Pac-12 conference before Washington State had a magical run in the Pac-12 tournament and bested UCLA in the championship game. Now, sadly, the Pac-12 is in its final hour, but we're going to have one more season of basketball before we say goodnight to #Pac12AfterDark for good.
Here's how Pac-12 coaches expect the conference to shake out in 2023-24:
5. Washington State
10. Oregon State
12. Arizona State
And here are our thoughts on the class of the conference—Utah, UCLA and Stanford—and the other tiers of Pac-12 teams:
Finishing at the top of the Pac-12 and making it to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to LSU by just three points, the Utes are back and as good as ever. They have all starters returning, along with the majority of their core players. Utah won't just be expected to compete in the Pac-12, they'll be on the short list of teams that can win it all. To make that leap, they'll be relying on their guards—Gianna Kneepkens and Kennady McQueen—to not only improve their play but take more of a leadership role.
No longer the underdog, the attitude for Utah is still the same—keep doing the hard work that got you in position to be title contenders. Head coach Lynne Roberts spoke about this during the team's first open practice:
I think it’s the same mantra of—we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but we definitely want to go further than we did. You see the circle up on the banner. I know that is step one of the goal and then we go from there, but it’s a long season. They’ve heard it—that we have to bite off a day at a time. I know this is all coaching cliche stuff, but it exists for a reason. That’s our goal. Make it further in the tournament—Elite Eight or further. We know it will be really hard and challenging, but that is what this group is focused on.
From hunter to hunted, the pressure is present for the Utes. But they have the personnel to meet those expectations. Getting it done will come down to a little bit of luck and a lot of execution.
Stanford was right there with Utah record-wise in the Pac-12. But the Cardinal failed to win the conference title and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Ole Miss, 54-49. It was the first time Stanford failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen since 2008. The bounce back should be quick for the Cardinal. They have Cameron Brink returning; she was the team's leading scorer and rebounder. A top-ranked freshman class featuring Courtney Ogden, Chloe Clardy and Nunu Agara also will help ensure an early exit in March doesn't happen again.
The biggest question for Stanford will be: Can they top Utah? With this being the last hurrah for the conference, it's a change of pace with Utah as the top dog and Stanford as the one with something to prove. Head coach Tara VanDerveer discussed this during Pac-12 Media Day:
The Pac-12 has, as long as I can remember, always been extremely strong and deep, and this year is no different. You can't look and think that you're going to get a win against any team. You're going to have to play the game, which is great. We want to have great competitive games. And so whether it's Utah or Colorado or UCLA, I mean, we have great programs. No one can take anyone for granted, and that's a great situation to be in.
We'll have to wait until early January to see those two square off. But it's very likely that to win the Pac-12, you'll have to go through Stanford just as much as you have to go through Utah.
While USC has made strides to become a top team in Southern California (more on that later), this is still a UCLA town basketball-wise. It'll be all about the guards for the Bruins this season, as they'll be led by the fifth-year senior Charisma Osborne and fellow guard Kiki Rice, who will be entering her sophomore season. After going just 11-7 in conference play last season, it'll be important for the Bruins to start strong in the Pac-12, as there are a couple of teams right below them in the rankings that could easily emerge as contenders.
Tier 2: Colorado, Washington State, USC
Right underneath the top contenders are Colorado, Washington State and USC. If things break their way, all three could make a tournament run or pull an upset versus the top teams. USC certainly made the biggest splash by signing Juju Watkins, the top high school prospect. If she's as good as advertised, the Trojans will be the team to watch out of this tier. Colorado was essentially able to run it back, keeping their continuity and core, which should help them get off to a strong start. Washington State won't sneak up on anyone this season; they improved dramatically last year and are now contenders in the Pac-12.
Tier 3: Arizona, Oregon, Washington
Just outside of contention, we have Arizona, Oregon and Washington. With Tier 1 and 2 being so elite, these teams will have trouble breaking .500 in the conference. Perhaps Arizona's freshman class can come in and surprise us. Or, maybe Phillipina Kyei takes a jump for Oregon. But I expect this trio to end up around the 7-10 in the Pac-12 standings.
Tier 4: California, Oregon State, Arizona State
Someone has to be last and, for this season, it’s Arizona State, California and Oregon State. These teams just don't have the top-level talent needed to win consistently on a night-in and night-out basis. However, every year, one team surprises and wins a handful of games we didn't predict. Maybe a team in Tier 4 can swap with a Tier 3 team by the end of the season.
It's disheartening to know this is the end of the Pac-12, and even more frustrating to see why the conference is coming to its demise—but that's a story for another day. For now, I want to celebrate the Pac-12. It's given us wild, late-night finishes and the best basketball coming out of the Western front of America. Let's enjoy one more year of Pac-12 after dark, watch regional rivalries, crown a conference champion and see how many Pac-12 teams go dancing in March. This is the last dance, so let's make it a wonderful waltz.