UCLA tabbed as Pac-12 preseason favorites followed by Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State.
The Washington women’s basketball team, which completed the greatest three-year run in the history of the program, was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 by conference coaches in a preseason poll.
“We have nothing to lose so we’re just working on getting better every single day and making sure that our effort, attitude and togetherness is as best as it can be,” first-year UW coach Jody Wynn said. “Each day we’ll get better and each week we’ll get better. … Our kids are hungry for that opportunity to get on the court and prove that they belong at this level.”
The league coaches tabbed Washington State, which tied for seventh in the Pac-12 last season, to finish seventh – its highest position in the preseason poll since 2011.
UCLA, which returns All-American candidates Jordin Canada and Monique Billings who led the Bruins to a second-straight NCAA Sweet 16 last season, is picked to finish first in the Pac-12 for the second straight year.
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Oregon, which has all five starters coming back, including the national freshman of the year Sabrina Ionescu, from a team that advanced to the program’s first-ever NCAA Elite Eight, was tabbed to finish second.
Pac-12 Tournament champion Stanford was picked third followed by Oregon State, the three-time Pac-12 regular-season champion.
California and Arizona State were picked to finish fifth and sixth respectively.
After WSU, the bottom half of the preseason poll includes (in order) USC, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and UW.
“I really don’t care,” Wynn said when asked about UW’s last-place prediction. “All we’re doing every single day is just trying to get a little bit better every single day. Just a little bit better every single day. That’s all we can ask of each other.
“It’s all I can ask of myself, my coaches, and every player in this program. We’ve always said that sometimes the scoreboard might be a liar, but we won inside, we won with our effort, we won with our heart, and eventually that
scoreboard will tell the truth.”
Following the exodus of many of the key players and the coach responsible for lifting the team to the top of the Pac-12, the Huskies are expected to crash to the bottom of the conference.
Washington, which finished 29-6 last season while advancing to its third straight NCAA tournament and setting UW attendance records that included the program’s first sellout at Alaska Airlines Arena, lost five of its top six scorers.
The Huskies will be hard pressed to replace guard Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and the consensus national player of the year, center Chantel Osahor, the most prolific rebounder in UW history, two-year starter Katie Collier, standout reserve Heather Corral and freshman guard Aarion McDonald, who would have been UW’s leading returning scorer, transferred to Arizona.
“Our job is to embrace what was before us, learn lessons of how to work extremely hard and to achieve great things,” Wynn said. “And that’s what we’re taking from those girls that have since graduated and moved on and to now establish our own identity, and that is just working extremely hard and understanding that we have a great opportunity.”
Wynn replaced Mike Neighbors, who compiled a 98-41 record at UW in four years and left for Arkansas in April.
She spent the past eight years at Long Beach State where she was 137-119. The 49ers finished 23-11 last season, which included their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1992.
Washington’s leading returning scorer is senior sharp-shooter Natalie Romeo, the former Nebraska transfer who was fourth on the team while averaging 9.3 points during her first year at UW. No other returning Husky averaged more than four points.
“Everyone gets an opportunity now,” said junior forward Hannah Johnson. “People obviously get to step up and play a bigger role, myself included and … maybe roles we didn’t play before.
“There is no pressure. It’s just play the game of basketball, have fun and play hard. I think that’s really exciting. And the system that we run is an equal opportunity system. So everyone gets an opportunity to score the basketball and make plays.”
Sophomore forward Mai-Loni Henson acknowledged the Huskies may struggle to maintain the success of previous teams, which advanced to the NCAA tournament the past three years.
“It can put us down a little bit sometimes when we’re not coming out on top because that’s what we are used to,” she said. “Having a young team, it’s a better learning opportunity for us that we will eventually overcome. I just think that will grow from it.”
Wynn added: “There’s certainly going to be some growing pains because it’s all new. It’s new for myself with the players and it’s certainly new for them as well. One thing that will be constant is our effort and our energy and that’s something that we can control.
“We don’t have to be 6-foot-5 and a phenomenal athlete or a super-talented basketball player. But we have some pretty good talent on this team that has really bought in from day one and are working really hard to create their own identity.”
Meanwhile, the Cougars are seeking to build on last season’s strong finish that included an unexpected run to the WNIT Final Four. WSU won four straight postseason games and finished an injury-plagued season at 16-20.
Washington State returns its top five scorers, including sophomore forward Borisla Hristova, a 2016 Pac-12 All-Freshman first team guard who averaged 14.7 points in nine games before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Sophomore guard Chanelle Molina, who averaged 12.8 points also missed the second half of the season due to a knee injury.
“I’m just so excited that everybody’s healthy now,” 11-year coach June Daugherty said. “We gave them a
lot of vitamins all postseason, all summer. They’ve worked really hard, our doctors and trainers worked really hard with them.
“I think one of the unique things is when something bad happens, there is a lot of good that comes out of it. … I think that they’re to be commended about the fact that they were able to say: You know what? We know they’re hurt, but we’re good, too, and we’re going to keep playing and get better. And that’s exactly what happened.”
— Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said the conference women’s tournament will be held at KeyArena as scheduled in 2018, but he’s unsure if the venue will be available in 2019 due to proposed renovations.
— Former UW standout Chantel Osahor, who was taken 21st overall in the 2017 WNBA draft and traded to Minnesota, was waived by the Lynx in training camp and took a graduate assistant coaching position at Drake.
Pac-12 women’s basketball preseason coaches poll
(first-place votes in parenthesis)
1. UCLA (7) – 115 (7)
2. Oregon (3) – 108
3. Stanford (2) – 108
4. Oregon State – 85
5. California – 83
6. Arizona State – 74
7. Washington State – 61
8. USC – 47
9. Utah – 40
10. Colorado – 38
11. Arizona – 20
12. Washington – 13