LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Pac-12 Conference is having likely its best women's basketball season, which has a chance to get even stronger.
As the conference tournament gets underway Wednesday with four first-round games, the Pac-12 could place at least eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-12 sent seven teams in 2017, a conference high.
“I think from top to bottom we're as strong as we’ve ever been,” said Rhonda Lundin Bennett, Pac-12 associate commissioner for women's basketball and sports management.
Lundin Bennett was chairwoman of the NCAA Division I women's basketball committee in 2018 and 2019. She also served on the committee from 2014-21, except for 2020, when COVID-19 wiped out NCAA Tournament.
She said the circumstances change year to year in how fields are put together, but there are general principles that remain the same such as strength of schedule and how well teams are playing late.
Many Pac-12 teams have been playing well throughout the season, and the conference has five in the AP Top 25, including No. 3 Utah and No. 6 Sanford.
Eight teams are in the top 40 of the NET rankings, one of the factors the committee uses to determine at-large spots for the tournament.
“I think we definitely have at least eight very quality programs, and possibly nine, that deserve consideration,” Lundin Bennett sad. “It just depends on how they finish out and what other teams do. But I think we’ve got a really, really strong season and top to bottom are one of the best leagues, if not the best league in the country.”
Utah's Lynne Roberts, named Tuesday as the conference's coach of the year, said the depth of competition should help the Pac-12 teams that make the NCAA Tournament.
“Every weekend you’re playing somebody that’s top 25, somebody that’s coached by an elite coach, and it really does prepare you,” Roberts said.
A NO. 2 GOING FOR A NO. 1
Utah (25-3) enters the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed, even though the Utes are ranked ahead of No. 1 seed Stanford (27-4).
Both teams went 15-3 in league play and split their two meetings, but the Cardinal had a better record against third-seeded and 20th-ranked Colorado (22-7, 13-5).
The Utes built on last season's achievements. They made the conference championship and then appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
“That was a great confidence boost, and there’s really no better way to get confidence than from success,” Roberts said. “It propelled us into the offseason. I do think it was a springboard of genuine confidence like: ‘OK, we can we can do this. Let’s just get better.’”
STANFORD GETS TESTED
Stanford captured at least a share of its third consecutive Pac-12 regular-season title, but it was tight down the stretch.
The Cardinal not only lost 84-78 to Utah on Saturday, it recently went to double overtime to beat Colorado, edged No. 19 UCLA by five points and defeated Southern California by three.
“This has been a tough road for us at the end of the season,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after the loss to Utah. “Our team battled (the Utes). We were right there. It could've gone either way, and hopefully this will make us very hungry coming into the Pac-12 Tournament.”
BUFFS ON THE RISE
Colorado reached 20 victories last season for the first time in nine years, and now the Buffaloes have their best seeding since entering the Pac-12 in 2011. They are expected tp make their second NCAA Tournament in a row for first time since appearing four straight years (2001-04).
ODDS AND ENDS
Utah junior forward Alissa Pili was named Pac-12 player of the year after leading the conference with 20.6 points a game and shooting 59.9% on field goals. Only she and Indiana's Mackenzie Holmes have put up those kinds numbers nationally this season. Pili has scored in double figures in all but one game. ... No. 21 Arizona has won at least 10 conference games for the fourth consecutive season. ... USC went 11-7 in Pac-12 play, the first time it has reached double figures since 2014.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25