March is back — and so is the Pac-12. With five women’s basketball teams representing the “Conference of Champions” in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, get ready for absolute mayhem. Sports editor Ryan Chien and women’s basketball beat writer Jane Kenny have the inside scoop on how the Pac-12 squads will fare.
No. 4 Arizona. First round matchup vs. No. 13 UNLV
Jane Kenny: This Saturday’s contest will be a conflict of interest in the Thomas household, as senior Arizona forward Sam Thomas will take on her younger sister Jade Thomas, a guard for the Runnin’ Rebels. Such a family affair is what brings out the best in the big dance, but nevertheless, I like the No. 19 team in the nation in its first and second round matchups. However, the Wildcats are yet another Pac-12 team with a tough draw and No. 1 South Carolina should take care of business in the Sweet 16 and send Arizona home.
Ryan Chien: Less than a year ago to this day, we were blessed with a Pac-12 matchup in the women’s march madness final. Stanford ended up spoiling the Wildcats’ championship aspirations, as it edged them out 54-53 in a game that came down to the final shot. Though Arizona has since parted ways with its previous lead scorer-turned-WNBA-guard Aari McDonald, the program is alive and well. With seniors Cate Reese and Shaina Pellington anchoring the squad, the Wildcats are hungrier than ever. But to prove their mettle once again, they ought not to get ahead of themselves. Though I have Arizona skirting past UNLV in the first round, the Lady Runnin’ Rebels are fresh off of a Mountain West championship — a stark contrast to the Wildcats’ three losses in their last four games played, including an early quarterfinal exit to Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament. Even if the No. 4 seed finds a way into the second round or sweet 16, No. 1 South Carolina will likely crush any of Arizona’s hopes for a championship rematch with Stanford.
No. 7 Colorado. First round matchup vs. No. 10 Creighton
JK: A 2-16 conference record during the 2018-19 season slated the Buffaloes at the very bottom of the Pac-12 just three years ago. Now, a 22-8 record has earned Colorado an invitation to the big dance for the first time since 2013. If the No. 7 seed in the Greensboro region can effectively defend the 3-point line to mitigate Creighton’s considerable yet streaky 45.8% clip from downtown, the Buffs could surely claim a first-round victory. However, Colorado was handed a tough draw in the round of 32, and its season will likely come to an end against No. 2 Iowa, as Hawkeyes sophomore Caitlin Clark averages 27.4 points per game and is a top talent nationally. Even so, the progression of this Colorado program in recent years under JR Payne’s young tenure as head coach is commendable.
RC: Colorado is a streaky team; when it gets hot, it’s nearly unstoppable. For context, the Buffs won 14 straight games to start off their season and went on a six-game winning streak before falling to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament final. Conversely, a stretch of six losses in seven games midway through the season also exemplifies Colorado’s lack of consistency. Luckily for the Buffs, however, such spontaneity may actually be beneficial in a series of single-elimination games like the NCAA tournament. Given that Colorado hasn’t hit a significant cold spell since early February, it may just have the momentum it needs to roll past the Bluejays. On the attack, the Buffs’ prowess is just average — they don’t lead any major offensive category in the Pac-12. But defensively, they’re a different story. In conference statistics, they rank first in steals with an average of nearly 11 per game, as well as second in scoring defense. That stinginess is the kind of advantage needed against high-scoring opponents such as, presumably, No. 2 Iowa in later rounds.
No. 5 Oregon. First round matchup vs. No. 12 Belmont
JK: Surely lightning can strike twice in the same place — and with No. 12 Belmont on a decisive 12-game win streak, I will pick the Bruins to upset a five seed for the second consecutive year. Belmont’s first-round upset over Gonzaga last season was cultivated in large part by a 25-point performance from crafty guard Destinee Wells, who has returned to the big stage for her sophomore season, averaging 16.5 points per game on 45.8% shooting. Although the Ducks possess a depth of top talent, the program is fresh off of a frustrating 80-73 Pac-12 quarterfinal loss to Utah and has been playing their opponents on slim margins to end the season. The characteristic chaos of March may make this Saturday matchup a bracket-buster for many.
RC: Oregon has the talent to make a deep run in this tournament — but it’s certainly not unbeatable. The Ducks have given up winnable games to nonconference opponents, such as South Florida and UC Davis, and were recently bounced out of the Pac-12 tournament by the underdog Utes in just their second round of play. On paper, Oregon and Belmont are also remarkably on par with one another. With both averaging around 70 points a game on 44% overall shooting and allowing 13 turnovers per contest, this No. 5 vs No. 12 matchup will be closer than many project. After all, the Bruins — who haven’t lost a game since late January — know a thing or two about upsetting higher-seeded teams. In 2021, they got the best of No. 5 Gonzaga in a convincing 64-59 victory. With a chip on their shoulder, they’re more than prepared to repeat history against a Ducks team that has been struggling as of late.
No. 1 Stanford. First round matchup vs. No. 16 Montana State
JK: After dropping a handful of nonconference match-ups to Texas, South Florida and South Carolina to begin the season with an underwhelming 8-3 record, it is safe to say that the Pac-12 champion Cardinal found their groove to the beat of a 20-game win streak. Led by sophomore Cameron Brink, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Stanford will shoot for nothing short of a blowout victory over Big Sky champion Montana State on Friday in a quest to defend its title. With a bevy of weapons, including four players boasting double-digit scoring averages, the Cardinal should cruise to the Sweet 16 with relative ease. However, No. 2 Texas, the flaming-hot Big-12 champions who earned a victory over Stanford earlier this season, will potentially pose a major threat in the Elite Eight. If the Cardinal are able to conquer the Longhorns, there is still a tough slate of prospective opponents in No. 11 N.C. State, No. 2 UConn with the return of star Paige Bueckers and No. 1 overall South Carolina, another team who defeated the Cardinal back in the fall. While head coach Tara VanDerveer and her squad are legitimate contenders, I foresee March mayhem being a gritty tossup for Cal’s Bay Area rival.
RC: 28 wins, only three losses and 16-0 in Pac-12 play — the statistics speak for themselves. Stanford is undoubtedly the top dog, and it’s looking to defend its NCAA title. Under the helm of the winningest coach in college women’s basketball history, Tara VanDerveer, a 16-seeded Montana State that has zero ranked wins under its belt poses little threat. With five-star recruit Cameron Brink, 2021 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and 40% three-point sniper Lexie Hull leading the way, the Cardinal’s pedigree of championship-level caliber talent this season is all but unmatched. The only team that is a significant obstacle is No. 1 South Carolina — a team Stanford wouldn’t even have to worry about until the title game.
No. 8 Washington State. First round matchup vs. No. 9 Kansas State
JK: Contests between eight and nine seeds typically make for must-watch television. And this toss-up brawl between big cats features a particularly intriguing storyline, as Washington State head coach Kamie Ethridge spent 18 seasons as a Kansas State assistant coach and is familiar with the program. I’ll pick Washington State to emerge victorious in this matchup as prolific and reliable scorer Charlisse Leger-Walker has been a burst of energy for the Cougars and the Wildcats have dropped six or their last eight games. Even if Washington State can extend its season into the round of 32, No. 11 N.C. State will be waiting to impose its forces and eliminate the Cougars.
RC: A second-place regular season finish in what is likely the nation’s top women’s basketball conferences is not too shabby. And yet, Washington State is merely a No. 8 seed. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Cougars don’t crush the Wildcats, who broke even in conference play in a less competitive Big 12. While Washington State holds results to be proud of under its belt — including victories over Arizona, Colorado and Gonzaga — Kansas State hasn’t upset any ranked teams since the tail end of January. Sure, Washington State underperformed in a game against Utah that it should’ve won in the Pac-12 Tournament. But with firepower coming from the likes of three different players averaging double-digit scoring in Charlisse Leger-Walker, Bella Murekatete and Johanna Teder, the Cougars should be in solid standing.