It's the first time multiple teams from the Pac-12 have reached the Final Four, with the runs marking the fruits of a push to schedule better nonconference opponents advocated by UW coach Mike Neighbors. Help send off the Huskies at 9 a.m. Thursday outside Husky Stadium; the team buses depart at 9:45 a.m.
Mike Neighbors isn’t asking for credit for the Pac-12 Conference’s banner year in women’s basketball.
“No, no, no. None whatsoever,” the Washington coach said. “I should only get credit for opening my big mouth.”
Neighbors’ Huskies, after finishing fifth in the Pac-12 during the regular season, are in the Final Four for the first time in program history, and so too is Pac-12 champion Oregon State, also in the Final Four for the first time.
Pac-12 women’s hoops by the numbers
12 Final Four appearances by Stanford, including two national championships (1990, 1992) and two runner-up finishes (2008, 2010).
6 Combined Final Four appearances by other conference teams. USC (1983, 1984, 1986) reached the Final Four as a member of the Western Collegiate Athletic Association (the Pac-10 was not formed for women’s basketball until the 1986-87 season). California (2013), Washington and Oregon State (both 2016) are the others.
It’s the first time the Pac-12 has had two teams in the national semifinals. Neighbors attributed that to a calculated effort by Pac-12 coaches over the past five years to improve their methods for scheduling nonconference opponents.
The goal in 2012, when the Pac-12 coaches gathered in a conference room during Final Four weekend in Denver, was to build a consensus on how the conference could strengthen its perception nationally. In the few years before that, the Pac-12 had gone through a downturn in women’s basketball, and a proposal had been put forth to limit the types of lower-tier nonconference opponents a Pac-12 could schedule.
This is where Neighbors’ big mouth — and his 32-page proposal — checks in.
A man of many analytical lists — he keeps an updated ranking of more than 1,000 of his favorite movies — Neighbors had previously researched more than five years’ worth of NCAA tournament rèsumès, trying to create a comprehensive profile of what, for example, the typical rèsumè of a No. 2 seed would look like.
So when the Pac-12 considered implementing this rule on nonconference scheduling — in short, no cupcakes — then-UW coach Kevin McGuff, whose wife was expecting a baby that spring, asked Neighbors to represent the Huskies at the conference meeting.
Neighbors was the only assistant coach in the Denver conference room. “I was scared to death,” he said this week.
For a while, as the coaches debated the proposal, Neighbors didn’t say a thing (and if you know anything about Neighbors, you know not talking for any stretch would have been akin to not breathing for him).
Finally, when he sensed that the proposed rule was gaining positive momentum, he sheepishly raised his hand. He didn’t think the proposed rule was a good idea and he had data to show why.
Soon, he was handing out copies of his 32-page proposal, complete with charts and graphs and enough head-spinning numbers to fill a season’s worth of box scores. He helped turn the conversation. The data shows that it’s OK, he told the group, to occasionally schedule a team with an RPI around 300, as long as you balance your schedule with higher-profile teams.
Sendoff for UW
On Thursday, the Huskies have invited fans to attend a 9 a.m. sendoff party next to the west entrance of Husky Stadium. UW coach Mike Neighbors, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and UW interim athletic director Jennifer Cohen are scheduled to address the crowd. The team buses will depart at 9:45 a.m.
Oregon State coach Scott Rueck on Wednesday recalled that he was sitting next to Neighbors at that meeting.
“We had to change a little bit of perception, and Mike did a great job presenting the numbers and the research and said, you know, those things add up to this, and this is what we have to do as a conference,” Rueck said.
Four years later, the Pac-12 this season had the No. 1 RPI conference in the nation, with five teams selected for the NCAA tournament and three advancing to the Elite Eight, the first time that’s happened in conference history.
Not all of the coaches immediately jumped on board with Neighbors’ numbers at that Denver meeting, but most of the coaches in the room took home a copy of his proposal. Over the next year or so, he said he fielded calls from coaches with particular questions, and in the years since — as he was promoted to the Huskies’ head coach in 2013 and in 2015 ended the program’s eight-year NCAA drought — he says coaches from other conferences have called for insights on his scheduling data. Sorry, he tells them, it’s sort of proprietary to the Pac-12 now.
Not long after that coaches’ meeting, Rueck even called Neighbors to ask him about a particular opponent he was ready to schedule for the Beavers. Is this a good idea? Rueck wondered.
Four years later, in the Final Four together, they have their answer.
|The Pac-12’s best shots|
|The Pac-12 has never had multiple teams in the Final Four until this season, when Washington and Oregon State broke through. Some other notable showings by the conference in the NCAA tournament since the 1986-87 season, when the conference officially began women’s basketball play:|
|Year||No. of teams||Best finishes|
|1990||4||Stanford won national title, Washington in Elite Eight|
|1992||5||Stanford won national title, USC in Elite Eight, UCLA in Sweet 16|
|2009||3||Stanford in Final Four, ASU in Elite Eight, California in Sweet 16|
|2013||4||Cal in Final Four, Stanford in Sweet 16|
|2016||5||UW, OSU in Final Four, Stanford in Elite Eight, UCLA in Sweet 16|