Despite a mixed bag of nonleague results, the overwhelming sentiment is that the conference is finally making a return to its glory days.
They expound the same theme every year about this time, selling sleeker wins in the nonconference portion of their schedules, boasting about higher ratings and begging for more bids in the NCAA tournament.
“I can’t remember a year like this one,” Washington coach June Daugherty said two seasons ago.
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“In the last five or six years, this is as good as the conference has been,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said last season.
Every year, you wonder if the Pac-10 women’s basketball coaches are right, if this year will be the year the conference returns to its not-so distant heyday.
From 1990 to 2001, Pac-10 teams bagged four NCAA bids in every season except one. In the last three years, each proclaimed better than the one before by conference coaches, the Pac-10 received eight dancing bids total and never more than three in a single season. Talk and walk were never formally introduced.
“We’re from the conference of champions,” said Shimmy Gray, a former Washington assistant now coaching at Arizona. “Yet you wouldn’t know that from what we’ve done the last five years. It’s early, but this year the conference is certainly making a statement.”
How does the saying go? If you repeat something enough times, it’s bound to come true eventually.
Maybe this season is finally the season. Maybe losing conference stalwarts Nicole Powell (Stanford), Giuliana Mendiola (Washington) and Ebony Hoffman (USC) didn’t hurt as bad as pundits expected. Maybe the Pac, finally, is back.
Walk, meet talk.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just another tease, another year when five or six teams pique interest with NCAA possibilities, then flood the NIT.
“The caliber of our players is affecting what we’re doing,” Gray said. “I’m comfortable in saying our talent this year can compete with every conference in the country.”
The cynic points to nonconference losses to ranked teams. Big losses, like No. 10 Ohio State’s 78-45 drubbing of Arizona and 83-60 beating of UCLA. Near misses, like No. 7 Notre Dame edging USC 60-56 and No. 9 Tennessee hanging on to topple second-ranked Stanford 70-67.
The optimist — and trust us, all Pac-10 coaches fall into this category — points to the wins that never came before. Big wins, like Arizona State knocking off No. 15 Georgia on the road and No. 8 Connecticut at home. Like UCLA’s wins over No. 4 Texas and No. 21 Purdue. Like Stanford beating No. 12 Texas Tech and No. 25 Utah. Like Washington stunning No. 13 Minnesota in overtime.
The latest Associated Press poll ranks only two Pac-10 teams — No. 2 Stanford and No. 20 UCLA. But Arizona (26), Arizona State (29) and Oregon (31) have all been ranked this season, and the Sun Devils’ win over Connecticut should boost them back in when the new rankings are released this week.
The key for those five teams is separating themselves from the lower half of the conference.
Conceivably, all five boast legitimate NCAA hopes. And with USC and California notching 6-3 nonconference records, the conference has seven teams with that record or better. The same number of teams were 6-3 or better at the same point last year, and the Pac-10 received only three NCAA bids. But this year, coaches say, will be different.
Why should you believe them?
Two reasons are players Washington fans can see at 7 tonight when the Huskies open their Pac-10 schedule against Arizona at Edmundson Pavilion: Wildcats center Shawntinice Polk and guard Dee-Dee Wheeler.
They are the poster children for everything that has gone right in the Pac-10 the past few seasons, the kind of players who dominate a game with presence, who more often than not go elsewhere.
Sharing shots with Wheeler, Polk’s scoring is down to 13.8 points per game, but because she grabs 8.6 rebounds and Wheeler averages 18 points, the Wildcats are actually better for it.
“I know I’m biased,” Gray said, “but I’m also pretty even-keeled. I can’t think of a better inside-outside combination in the country.”
When the Pac-10 coaches get together every spring, they talk about getting these kind of players and these kind of wins. Daugherty said nonconference scheduling is the most discussed portion of the meetings.
Two problems still remain — a lack of exposure for Pac-10 teams and a double round-robin league schedule, the only one of its kind in the major conferences.
“There’s a lot of subjectivity that goes into that,” Daugherty said. “Sometimes, people on the (NCAA selection) committee don’t have the opportunity to watch the Pac-10 play. It’s tough to get a real, true look. And then look at the schedules. We beat up on each other.
“That said, the conference has definitely improved this year.”