Pac-12 previews: Oregon State expected to stay on top

OSU celebrates a win last season. Photo by Dave Nishitani.i.
OSU celebrates a win last season. Photo by Dave Nishitani.

The Pac-12 is still a rising conference, but it is in a unique growth phase this year. Oregon State, Arizona State and UCLA return mostly intact, while Stanford, Cal, Washington and Washington State have key losses. Oregon, Colorado, USC and Utah are rebuilding.

My predicted Pac-12 finish:

  1. OSU
  2. ASU
  3. Stanford
  4. UCLA
  5. Cal
  6. Washington
  7. Oregon
  8. Colorado
  9. USC
  10. WSU
  11. Utah
  12. Arizona

Teams were previewed on They’re Playing Basketball throughout October by myself, unless otherwise noted.

Oregon State

Oregon State has been on the rise the last few years. But last season the Beavers truly arrived – and how.

They lost only three games during the regular season: one to Tennessee on Dec. 28, and two in February. They claimed the Pac-12 regular season title and were ranked in the top ten for the first time in school history. They won fans along the way; TV announcers and fans knew player’s names. OSU went to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

So how do they follow that up? The Beavers are starting well on paper, having lost only one starter. They return a tight group of ravenous upperclassmen who have not only learned about the game together, but have learned each other.

“We’ve got a team of outstanding individuals,” coach Scott Rueck said. “They’ve set the bar very high in the way they’ve represented themselves, Oregon State and the Pac-12 Conference. We had an amazing year last year, and we know the expectations for this season are high. This group is one that will embrace that challenge, and handle it well.”

“This conference is a ridiculous group of coaches and players to compete against, and we’re excited for the year that’s coming up.”

Rueck’s story has become familiar: the way he took over an OSU program in 2010 that had crumbled, with only two players left on the roster. How he ran his coaching systems while using his recruiting acumen to find athletes in unlikely places.

The former George Fox University national championship coach found senior guard Jamie Weisner (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) in a small Eastern Washington town, and he plucked center and conference-blocking record-holder Ruth Hamblin (12.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) from remote British Columbia. Two other starters – junior guard Sydney Wiese (12.7 ppg) and senior forward Deven Hunter (8.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg) – came from smaller high schools in Phoenix and greater Salem, Ore., respectively.

Rueck gets the most from every one of his players, as he has from returning reserves Gabriella Hanson, a junior guard; Samantha Siegner, a senior forward; Marie Gulich, a sophomore center; Jen’Von’Ta Hill, a senior guard; and Kolbie Orum, a junior forward.

OSU players are known for filling up statistical categories, such as Weisner’s proficiency in both scoring and rebounds. They are quick in transition and play team ball.

But though last season was unprecedented, the Beavers have room for improvement. They lost their only match up with Stanford, and were upset a week later by Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. OSU made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Gonzaga – a squad many felt they should have beaten handily.

Rueck acknowledged that his team grew on many levels in the off-season.

“I think this team has definitely matured physically and mentally,” he said. “I’m excited to see what this team will bring to the floor. Jeff Macy is an outstanding strength coach, and he did a great job with this team in the off-season. With the way last year ended, we’re coming into this year really hungry.”

He is counting on his older players to lead the charge.

“The talent is there, the experience is there, and now the experience handling success is there,” Rueck said. “We learned some lessons last year that will carry over to this year. I’m excited to see that leadership in action.”

Three freshmen join the mix this season: 6-foot-4 center Tarea Green, from Hillsboro, Ore.; Katie McWilliams, a 6-foot-2 guard from South Salem, Ore.; and guard Taylor Kalmer of Chandler, Ariz. Each gained numerous accolades in their high school careers.

Hamblin said players look forward to the season too.

“Last year we got to experience what it was like to have the bull’s-eye on our backs,” she said. “I think we can learn from that. We’re excited to get out on the court and compete for every possession.”

OSU continues their series with Tennessee, begun last year, as the Lady Vols visit Corvallis Dec. 19. Other pre-conference opponents include Arkansas, Marquette and Notre Dame. The Beavers begin Pac-12 play Jan. 2 on the road at USC.

Arizona State

To say Arizona State had an excellent 2014-2015 season is an understatement.

After one pre-conference loss, they didn’t drop another game until Jan. 25, when they played eventual Pac-12 champs Oregon State. The Sun Devils finished 29-6, second in the conference and ended the season ranked ninth in the country. They made it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Florida State.

ASU walks into this year having lost only one starter and two bench players, while returning a strong core of upperclassmen who have played together for a long time. Coaches picked them to finish third in the Pac-12 regular season, and many others are predicting an even better showing. But 19-year coach Charli Turner Thorne is quick to point out that it is too early to make assumptions.

“On paper people look at it and say, ‘Oh they lose only one starter. They will be even better,'” Turner Thorne said. “I never take anything for granted.”

“You see it all the time in different sports where teams are coming off great seasons and they have a lot of people back and then they do not do as well as expected. For me, it is a new season and we are starting over. Again, we have a lot of things we can be better at and we know it and our team is aware of it, which I think is great.”

Senior guard Katie Hempen (12 ppg), junior forward Sophie Brunner (11.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg), senior point guard Elisha Davis (7.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) and junior forward Kelsey Moos (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) return to the starting line up. Junior center Quinn Dornstauder (7.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is also back, as are reserve guards Arnecia Hawkins and Eliza Normen.

Joining the Sun Devils are four true freshmen.

Sabrina Haines and Armani Hawkins are both Phonenix-area products who were ranked in the top 25 at the guard position. Kianna Ibis comes from Nebraska, where she was the 19th-ranked forward. She has recovered from an ACL injury she sustained last January. Center Charnea Johnson-Chapman hails from Southern California, where she averaged a double-double in her senior season.

Unsurprisingly, the exacting Turner Thorne has precisely identified the flaws in ASU’s game, and has a plan for how to deal with their smaller stature.

“We need to stay where we are at in terms of taking care of the ball, but we need to be a better rebounding team,” she said. “Plus-five on the boards is not going to help you take that final step that we want to take.”

“When you look at all the top teams, you see that they are at least plus-10. We are small and so I think if we could be at least plus 10 that will be huge for us. The other big area where we have to improve is in the area of offensive efficiency. Again, when you look at the top teams and you see how hard they cut and their efficiency and what they do offensively, we are not there. And that is where we have to grow.”

Turner Thorne has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and this year that starts with the Sun Devils’ first game, against Kentucky. They will also face South Carolina, Syracuse and Florida State before conference play, which they begin at home Jan. 2 against Cal.

Stanford

These are some different days for Stanford.

The long Cardinal reign atop the Pac-12 Conference faded last season, as they ended tied for third place and lost to both Oregon and Arizona for the first time in many years. Arizona State beat them twice, and they split the series with Bay Area rival Cal yet again. Stanford surprised with an upset to win the conference tournament, but were routed by Notre Dame in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

This season promises to be much the same, as the Cardinal lost starting point guard Amber Orrange and another top-scorer in Bonnie Samuelson. In a coaches poll, Stanford was picked to finish second in the conference – the first time since 1999 that they haven’t been tabbed to win it.

But Tara VanDerveer, who enters her 30th season as the Cardinal head coach, is optimistic about the returnees and four freshmen.

“We’ve had some great practices and I’m really impressed with the condition our team came back in,” VanDerveer said. “I think this is going to be one of the most deep teams we’ve had at Stanford. There are a lot of people contributing and everyone is doing very well.”

Returning starters include junior guard Lili Thompson (13.3 ppg, 3.5 apg, 3 rpg) and sophomore forward Kaylee Johnson (5.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg). Junior guard Karlie Samuelson (6.4 ppg) and junior forward Erica McCall (5.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who split starting duties last year, are also back. So is junior guard Briana Roberson, sophomore guard Brittany McPhee, junior forward Kailee Johnson and senior forward/center Tess Picknell.

With a new team, VanDerveer came in with a plan. And some of it includes a partial return of her storied “triangle offense,” which she scrapped last season.

“Pace is really key for us, and I think we’re going to be running better than we ever did last year, honestly,” she said. “We’re looking to really play up-tempo and move the ball. We’re doing some things differently defensively, being more aggressive and hopefully forcing more turnovers. Offensively, a little bit of triangle is back, but mostly just more ball movement and more spacing.”

Freshmen include New Mexico guard Alexa Romano, ranked 22nd in last year’s class; Australian standout forward Alanna Smith; Marta Sniezek, an award-winning Washington D.C. point guard; and Ohio forward/center Shannon Coffee. Sniezek will take Orrange’s place as floor general.
VanDerveer said the quartet has assimilated with the team flawlessly.

“They’re doing really well because our upperclassmen are being great mentors and ‘big sisters’ to them,” she said. “It’s amazing – they’ve stepped on the court and are playing like they’ve been here forever.”

“We’re really excited about Marta at the point and are really excited about Alexa’s speed. Alanna gives you a whole different dimension with her size and her 3-point shooting ability. Shannon is a big body inside that is doing a great job for us.”

The Cardinal have their usual tough preconference schedule, including their annual face-off with Tennessee in December. They will also take on Gonzaga, George Washington, Santa Clara, Texas and Chattanooga before beginning Pac-12 play Jan. 2, at Arizona.

Last year was VanDerveer’s first since 2008 without either stars Nneka or Chiney Ogwumike on the roster, and Stanford did flounder a bit. But could they rebuild that quickly? VanDerveer likes what she sees so far from her team.

“They really do seem to have fun competing – good competition,” she said. “They go hard against each other, but then they’re joking with each other off the court. It has a really good feel to it. We’re very excited about how things are going and just want to keep it going, keep everyone healthy and keep everyone working hard.”

UCLA

The UCLA Bruins experienced both extreme lows and extreme highs last season, in a year no one could have scripted.

They began with lofty expectations and a preseason ranking, based on their top five recruiting class. But they also faced three power house programs in their first three games: North Carolina, Texas and Nebraska. They lost each contest.

The Bruins finally won a few games in December, but then were pounded by #1 Connecticut and #4 Notre Dame. They went into Pac-12 play with a 4-6 record.

“I think I was an over-believer last year. I never stopped believing in that team,” Coach Cori Close said. “I think I underestimated how that schedule could potentially shake us. It took us a while to get our confidence back and to really work through that.”

UCLA battled through conference play, finishing sixth. But it was in the postseason that they exceeded all expectations: after accepting a WNIT invitation, they won six straight to take the tournament title. Of their last 11 games of the season, the Bruins lost only two.

The lessons learned from the year made a big impression on senior guard and leading scorer Nirra Fields (15 ppg, 5.4 rpg), who says she is now more attuned to developing relationships and details.

“Everything counts. Every person on the team contributes toward a win…everything matters,” Fields said.

Close said that though the WNIT was exciting, it was also challenging. Assistant coach Jenny Huth addressed the team at one point, telling them, “this is what you’ve worked for.” Even the final trip to the title game, at West Virginia, was a six-hour bus ride. But the eventual reward proved worth it.

“We ended on a really good note last season, and now we have to take that momentum into this season,” Fields said.

So far, that seems to be working. And with only two freshman this year, transitions aren’t as big.

“When we came together in August, it’s been the easiest chemistry-building since I’ve been at UCLA: the relationships, the fun, there’s been no separation between older and younger, two to integrate into the team instead of seven last year,” Close said. “I have to remind myself we have two new players, because it really doesn’t feel that way.”

“This year has been seamless in that we’re just moving forward.”

Fields brings a new pedigree this year, having helped her native Canada win a Pan American Games title in July. Sophomore guard and last year’s Pac-12 freshman of the year Jordin Canada (11.8 ppg) also garnered experience on the world stage a few months ago, playing for Team USA in the World University Games.

Sharp-shooting junior guard Kari Korver (10.1 ppg), sophomore forward Monique Billings (5.8 ppg, 5 rpg), sophomore forward Lajahna Drummer (5.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and senior forward Kacy Swain (4.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) all return, as do four key reserve players.

Freshmen include Texas forward Ashley Hearn, ranked 22nd overall in the 2015 class and fourth at her position; and guard Kennedy Burke, from nearby Northridge, Calif. Close said Hearn has such a high basketball IQ that she sometimes forgets she is in her first year.

“’Do the work’ is the theme this year,” Close said. “We are focusing on discipline and chemistry.

Coaches picked UCLA to tie for fourth in the conference this season.

Their preconference schedule won’t be without challenges, as they face South Carolina, Michigan and possibly Notre Dame in a Thanksgiving tournament. Other opponents will be St. John’s, James Madison and Louisiana Tech.

The Bruins open Pac-12 play Dec. 30 at home against archrival USC.

Cal

If Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb feels a déjà vu going into this season, it’s understandable. She has come full circle as she enters her fifth year at the helm of a program she guided to elite status.

In her inaugural season, the Golden Bear team had no seniors. Now after sending off the first class she had for four years, Gottlieb this year is again left with no seniors. It is rebuilding time again, but Gottlieb relishes the challenge.

“We are excited for what this new season will bring,” she said. “We have so many people who can step up. We are long, athletic, young and versatile across the board. Most importantly, we have a tight group that wants to get better every day and wants to raise the bar for Cal Basketball. I can’t wait to see how good this group can become.”

That group includes two juniors, three sophomores and five freshmen.

Gone are prolific scorers and team leaders Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd, who were each drafted by WNBA teams and completed successful rookie seasons last month. Justine Hartman and Brittany Shine also graduated. An unexpected loss came last month in junior guard Mercedes Jefflo, who was dismissed from the team.

Two starters return in sophomore forward/guard Mikayla Cowling (10 ppg, 5 rpg) and sophomore guard Gabby Green (6.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg), as well as key bench players Courtney Range (8.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Penina Davidson (3.3 ppg). Junior forward KC Waters is also back.

Gray and Boyd accounted for an average 30 points and almost 15 rebounds per game between them, and Jefflo brought in 10 points per game. New players will have to learn quickly. But given Gottlieb’s track record, and the pedigrees of the newcomers, the learning curve might be shorter.

Kristine Anigwe, a 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American forward from Phoenix, was ranked 13th in the class of 2015 and second at her position. She will help fill up the paint with 6-foot-7 freshman center Chen Yue, from China.

Two freshman guards hail from prestigious programs in Oakland. MaAne’ Mosley is from Saint Mary’s College High School, where she was the 16th-ranked wing in the country, while Asha Thomas comes from Bishop O’Dowd, where she was ranked ten spots behind Mosley.

Breanna Cavanaugh is a freshman guard from New Jersey, where she was nationally-ranked.

Gottlieb said the group has been coming along quickly.

“Our basketball IQ, versatility and ability to move the ball are as great as we’ve ever had. As a coaching staff, we’re working hard to push the veteran players to new levels and make sure the freshmen are constantly caught up to speed. That combination has been fun for us and gone really well so far,” she said. “There are a lot of new faces and expectations, but the energy is high and it’s contagious.”

Team motivation is high – so much so that Gottlieb said the season has started with more energy than she’s ever experienced in her tenure as a head coach.

“In all my years, we’ve had the most energy and collective effort and high spirit as I’ve had in any first few practices,” she said. “It’s a youthful group of players who want to take in everything they can, and want to give everything they can. That’s a really good combination.”

Gottlieb quickly elevated the Cal program to new heights after taking the helm. They have been to the NCAA Tournament every season since her first with the team, including a trip to the Final Four in 2013.

Though the faces are new, Gottlieb promised that the up-tempo Cal brand would remain intact.

“This team wants to exceed every accomplishment we’ve had here. That’s what I love about them. They want to do new things,” Gottlieb added. “They want to write their own story. It’s going to have Cal Basketball written all over it, but they’re a very unique group with uniquely talented players who are going to do it in their own way.”

Washington

by Joe Veyera

Any program tasked with replacing both its all-time leading scorer and rebounder is in for an uphill battle.

That’s exactly the situation the Washington Huskies have been saddled with heading into this season, with the losses of both guard Jazmine Davis and forward Aminah Williams to graduation.

But for the UW and head coach Mike Neighbors, the hope is the team’s three returning starters can pick up where the historic duo left off, and push the Huskies to greater heights than last season’s first-round NCAA Tournament exit.

There was a lot to like about last year’s 23-win campaign. A 21-point shellacking of then No. 5 Texas A&M last December was the program’s first over a ranked non-conference opponent in nearly two decades, while a 76-67 victory against another top-10 team in Oregon State in February cemented its status as a top Pac-12 contender.

And though an average of 25 points and 12 rebounds a night disappears with the departures of Davis and Williams, the team returns one of the most prolific scorers in Division I in junior guard Kelsey Plum.

Plum, who spent her summer on the world stage with Team USA at the Pan American Games, was the Pac-12 scoring leader with nearly 23 points a night last season and should be back at full-strength after knee surgery in April.

Sharp-shooting senior forward Talia Walton is the only other returnee to average double-digits in scoring last season, and was named an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention for her efforts. She’ll also be expected to shoulder some of the rebounding burden alongside sophomore forward Chantel Osahor, after both hauled in about six boards per game.

One of the most-efficient sixth men in the league last year — averaging five points and six rebounds in 21 minutes a night — Osahor will likely slot into Williams’ spot in the starting lineup.

But the biggest presence in the post for the Huskies in 2015 may just be the team’s lone freshman: 6-foot-5 McDonald’s All-American Deja Strother. The center out of Kenmore, Wash. will be relied upon heavily in her first college season to provide rebounding, defense, and post-scoring.

Strother is third McDonald’s All-American on the roster, alongside Plum and redshirt junior forward Katie Collier. Now two years removed from an ACL injury, Collier will try to live up to lofty expectations that had her as one of the top-25 recruits in the nation coming out of high school.

Sophomore guard Brianna Ruiz made 28 starts last year, and will likely be tasked with pulling up from 3-point range often. Behind Plum and Ruiz, the Huskies will turn to sophomores Kelli Kingma and Khalia Lark, and senior Alexus Atchley to provide consistency off the bench at the guard spot.

Senior post Mathilde Gilling and sophomore guard Mackenzie Wieburg also return for the Huskies, though neither should be expected to see much playing time.

It likely won’t be until Pac-12 play until fans see how competitive the Huskies are against top-flight competition. The biggest non-conference tests comes in a neutral-site matchup with Syracuse on Nov. 27, and at home against Oklahoma on Dec. 6, while the Pac-12 season starts on the road against rival Washington State on Dec. 29.

Oregon

This will be year two of Kelly Graves’ University of Oregon rebuilding project, and despite initial glances, the Ducks promise to be much improved from last season.

Graves left Gonzaga – which he had built into a powerhouse, nationally-ranked program over 14 years – in 2014 to take the helm of the beleaguered Oregon ship, left in tatters by two successive ineffective coaches.

He came in with a bang and laid out some new standards for the Ducks, but many on the team didn’t clear the bar that he set. Drea Toler and Tatum Neubert transferred to other schools. Graves dropped two other players from the team.

Oregon also lost four to graduation: starters Katelyn Loper (9.2 points per game) and Amanda Delgado (4.7 ppg), and reserves Megan Carpenter and Marie Berthuel. But returnees and new players will likely bolster last year’s 13-17, Pac-12 ninth-place finish significantly.

Senior forward and leading scorer Jillian Alleyne (18.4 ppg, 15.2 rpg) is back, as is senior guard Lexi Petersen (11.1 ppg) and sophomore guard Lexi Bando (10.4 ppg). Reserves Jordan Loera, a senior guard, and Katie Gruys, a senior forward, also return.

“I think we are definitely going to be better,” Graves said. “Again, we will have many new faces and have only five players back.”

“But that experience includes All-American Jillian Alleyne, all-Pac-12 freshman Lexi Bando, starting guard Lexi Peterson and all-purpose guard Jordan Loera. Their experience with our approach to the game is critical. Last year everyone was learning, and now we have some veterans, so to speak.”

The seven newcomers are an eclectic mix of transfers, International players and true freshmen. Graves loves the roster.

“I’m really excited about newcomers Jacinta Vandenberg, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Fresno State who sat out last season; Maite Cazorla, a freshman point guard from Spain; and Oti Gildon, a freshman forward from Gonzaga Prep,” Graves said. “All of them should be key contributors this year.”

“Jacinta can anchor the defense and is a terrific passer and rebounder – one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached. Maite is so savvy and smart at the point, and Oti is an all-purpose player who knows nothing but winning.”

Redshirt senior forward Liz Brenner is back after a 21 month absence playing with USA and Oregon volleyball. Graves envisions an Alleyne-Brenner presence in the paint.

“Liz is also really going to help us, especially in the locker room, and can help Jill with quality minutes,” Graves said.

Other new faces include senior guard Kat Cooper, who transferred from Boston College; junior guard Mar’Shay Moore, from Blue Mountain Community College; and Lauren Yearwood, a freshman forward from British Columbia.

“We are deeper at every position for sure, and we are better inside and at the point – two key areas.”

As for leadership, Graves will be looking to Alleyne, who promises to light up the Pac-12 conference.

“Jill needs to lead and help get this team to the NCAA Tournament to help solidify her legacy as one of the all-time great Pac-12 players,” he said. “She and teammates are capable, but for us to compete for (a playoff slot), each player must play at a high level each and every night, as we don’t have much room for error.”

Oregon did suffer one setback, in that junior college transfer Megan Trinder sustained a season-ending injury a few weeks ago.

“She probably would have been our starting point guard,” Graves said.
The Ducks face North Carolina, Hampton and Clemson, among others, in preconference play. Their first Pac-12 game will be at UCLA Jan. 2.

Colorado

Colorado will have a whole different look this year, from the court to the bench.

The Buffs welcome four new players, which replace the five lost, and coach Linda Lappe has two new assistant coaches in former Texas standout Jamie Carey and Julian Assibey.

The player losses are significant, considering that Colorado tied for ninth in the Pac-12 last season. Gone are starters Jen Reese (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Lexy Kresl (12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Jasmine Sborov (6.5 ppg, 5 rpg) and reserve Alina Hartman. Top scorer Arielle Roberson, who sat out last year with a torn ACL, opted not to return for her senior year.

The transition has set the stage for a rebuilding year in Lappe’s sixth season with the Buffs, who were ranked in 2012-2013, and for a few weeks of the following year. Lappe sees it as an opportunity to get back to her roots.

“I’m really looking forward to this upcoming season because we have an exciting mix of veterans and new blood,” Lappe said. “We want to get back to doing things ‘the Colorado way,’ which is being a solid defensive team who understands the work, focus, and discipline needed to be a top-notch program. We are on the rise, and I can’t wait to see how this young team responds to the challenges that await us in a tough Pac-12 conference.”

Returning starters are top-scorer Jamee Swan (13.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg), a senior forward, and junior guard/forward Haley Smith (9.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg). Also back is three-point specialist Lauren Huggins, forward Zoe Beard-Fails, guard Brecca Thomas, center Zoe Correal and center Bri Watts.

The Colorado freshman are a diverse group.

Forward Monica Burich, from Minnesota, averaged 18.7 points and 9 rebounds per game as a high school senior. Makenzie Ellis, an Oklahoma forward, had a stellar junior season but missed last year due to a knee injury. Texas guard Kennedy Leonard lead her team to an undefeated record last year while Alexis Robinson, a guard from Kentucky, was an all-region player of the year in her state.

The Buffs will be tested in preconference play by Kentucky, whom they face Nov. 22, Long Beach State and Missouri. Their first Pac-12 game is Jan. 2, when they host the University of Washington.

USC

USC may take the term “rebuilding” to another level this season.

There are seven new players on the roster this year – four of whom are from other countries. They join only five returnees, including three starters. The tallest player in the new line up is 6-foot-4, and to be sure, the Trojans will be on the small and fast side as they have eight guards, four forwards and no true center.

Players are having to adjust and learn quickly. From coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’s perspective, that process is going well so far.

“This year we have a lot of new faces so, a lot of different energy with the team,” she said of her new-look USC crew. “We’ve done a lot more team-building, just to get everybody on the same page. But we are excited about our potential and we are working hard to really be one of the stronger teams in the Pac-12.”

Cooper-Dyke’s first two years coaching at her alma mater have been extreme. She took the team to the highest of heights in her first season, upsetting Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament and going on to win the title. Then before 2014-2015 practices had begun, leading scorer Ariya Crook was dismissed for breaking team rules. In November, guards Destinie Gibbs and Chyanne Butler both left the team. Butler was a highly-recruited freshman.

In January, senior guard Kiki Alofaituli announced she was taking a break from the team, and never returned. April saw third-leading scorer McKenzie Calvert and Amy Okwonko both transfer from the program. Top point-getters Alexyz Vaioletama and Kaneisha Horn graduated, and Drew Edelman left the team. Only five players remained on the roster going into the spring recruiting season.

To the credit of Cooper-Dyke and her assistant coaches, they produced in a hurry. Australian forward Dani Milisic and guard Khaedin Taito of New Zealand were signed in May. Guard Candela Abejon is from Spain. Forward Temi Fagbenle is a grad student who has one year of eligibility remaining. She represented Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics.

Sophomore guard Sadie Edwards sat out for a year after transferring from Connecticut, and is eligible to play. Freshman guard Aliya Mazcyk hails from North Carolina, and the final newcomer, freshman forward Marguerite Effa, is a Los Angeles native.

Fagbenle, with her Olympic experience, might be the highlight of the new player roster.

“Temi is incredibly important for us, for so many different reasons,” Cooper-Dyke said. “One, she is an incredible talent, two, she has incredible size and length. But she also brings a level of maturity to our team that we were in desperate need of. She is also as smart as a whip and she can just help so many young players get better quickly.”

Cooper-Dyke praised the International players, and hinted at possible causes of last season’s player exodus.

“I enjoy it because you have some different players that are hungry, that listen and actually do what you say without questioning,” Cooper-Dyke said of her Trojans from abroad. “It is great to have an international kind of flair to our program right now and this is just another phase of building the USC program and the brand to where we want it to be.”

Returning is senior guard Brianna Barrett (9.6 ppg), junior guard Jordan Adams (7.3 ppg), junior guard Courtney Jaco (7 ppg), sophomore forward Kristen Simon (6.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and junior guard Alexis Lloyd (1.6 ppg).

Hard work is Cooper-Dyke’s theme this season.

“It is work ethic,” she said. “Midway through that [2013-14] season, we got it, we bought in, and we were poised to go into the tournament and make a strong run. So for me, it is about getting everybody on the same page, everybody buying in and us having one focus, one drive and one passion. I think we are well on our way to doing that, that’s the only way to be successful in a very strong and competitive Pac-12.”

Despite Cooper-Dyke’s strong language, USC kept a low profile at Pac-12 media day a few weeks ago, and their pre-conference schedule isn’t as challenging as it has been in years past. They will be tested by West Virginia, Gonzaga and Long Beach State before beginning conference play Dec. 30, at UCLA.

WSU

by Joe Veyera

After a first-round WNIT exit at the hands of Eastern Washington in March, it was a given that the Washington State Cougars would be forced to replace a pair of program cornerstones in guard Tia Presley and forward Shalie Dheensaw.

While the loss of Presley would certainly hurt, there was no shortage of underclassman talent at the guard spot. And the team had already gotten a taste of life without Dheensaw, after a knee injury early in Pac-12 play sidelined her for the remainder of the season, with freshman Louise Brown holding her own in her place.

Ultimately, after a 17-16 season, anything seemed possible for 2015-16 with Lia Galdeira leading the charge.

That is, until early July.

While the losses of Presley and Dheensaw to graduation were expected from the start, Galdeira’s announcement that she too would not return despite a year of eligibility remaining as well came as nothing short of a shock.

Suddenly, a team that likely could have contended for a post-season berth on the back of one of the best scorers in school history now appears more likely to be a middling competitor in a tough conference.

Now it’s up to head coach June Daugherty, now in her ninth season at the helm, to make the most of a roster that has nine underclassmen, and will need several of them to contribute to have any shot at extended its post-season streak to three years.

The biggest question Daugherty will have to address is how to replace the 45 of the team’s 68 points a night last season between Presley, Dheensaw, and Galdeira.

Senior guard Dawnyelle Awa and forward Mariah Cooks will be counted on to provide a steadying hand as the lone returners to start all 32 games last season, while sophomore forward Louise Brown will try to build off her success in 16 starts after Dheensaw’s season-ending knee injury.

Awa was second on the team last year in field goal percentage at 44 percent, and led the team in 3-point shooting. However, she only averaged about five points a night, and she’ll have to take on a more substantial role as a scorer for the team to have success. Senior guard Taylor Edmondson will also get more minutes, and be relied upon as another sharp-shooter as a player that makes approximately a third of her 3-point attempts.

The team’s fourth (and final) senior, guard Alexis Williamson, saw her playing time diminish to just four minutes a night in 2014-15, and with an influx of guard talent, it’s unclear whether she’ll get much time off the bench.

Sophomore Caila Haley was ranked as one of the top-20 guard prospects in the nation coming out of high school by ESPN, and stands to take on a more substantial role after averaging seven minutes a night last year, while fellow sophomore Pinelopi Pavlopoulou will try to build off a freshman campaign that saw her appear in all 32 games.

Australian guard Krystle McKenzie is coming off of a redshirt season, while the program adds freshman Alexys Swedlund, who was named Miss Basketball South Dakota 2015, the state’s highest honor for high school girls players.

Alongside the duo of Brown and Cooks in the post — one of the better pairings in the Pac-12 — the Cougars have relatively untested depth in junior forward Ivana Kmetovska, sophomore center Bianca Blanaru, freshmen Maria Kostourkova and Borislava Hristova, and redshirt freshman Nike McClure.

Kmetovska has seen limited playing time over the last two seasons, while Blanaru, a member of the U-20 Romanian National Team in 2013, averaged six minutes a night last year. McClure was one of the top high school players to come out of Washington State in 2014, and likely benefited from the season on the bench.

Kostourkova and Hristova are unknown quantities on the collegiate level, but both have U20 national team experience with Portugal and Bulgaria, respectively.

As a whole, it’s hard to truly know what the floor or ceiling is for the Cougars in 2015-16. A strong recruiter overseas, Daugherty certainly has a talented roster filled with national team members, along with a few highly-regarded domestic underclassmen like Haley, Swedlund, and McClure. The team’s success will rely heavily on how much those young players develop over the course of the year, and whether the question marks that currently fill the Washington State bench become solutions for this year and beyond.

Utah

It’s not only a fresh season but a brand new day for the Utah Utes.

Following last year’s 9-21 last-place Pac-12 finish, fifth-year coach Anthony Levrets was let go and Lynne Roberts hired from the University of Pacific. She has already set a different tone.

In nine seasons at Pacific, where her record was 221-175, and four seasons before that at Chico State, Roberts’ up-tempo style drove her teams to an average overall scoring record of 71.2 points per game. It is a style that is a breath of fresh air for a hungry Utah, which has languished in the basement of the conference since joining four years ago.

“Lynne appreciates our long tradition of women’s basketball success and is excited at the challenges ahead as we strive to become a leader in the Pac-12,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill said in announcing Roberts as the new coach last spring.

Gone is top scorer Taryn Wicijowski (13.9 points per game) and another starter, Cheyenne Wilson (7.1 ppg). But the Utes’ cupboard is far from bare.

Senior guard Danielle Rodriguez (9.5 ppg), sophomore guard Tanaeya Boclair (8.7 ppg) and sophomore center Joeseta Fatuesi (6.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) return, as do key bench players Paige Crozon, Emily Potter and Nakia Arquette.

Katie Kuklok, a transfer from Utah Valley University, will finally make her Utah debut, after a season-ending injury one year ago kept her out for the entire year. She averaged 16 points per game at UVU. Two freshmen round out the list of newcomers: Erika Bean and Jordanna Porter.

A two-time Big West coach of the year, Roberts rebuilt Pacific into a winning program, and aims to do the same with the Utes, step-by-step. She said she is more concerned with daily improvement right now than anything else.

“We just want this group to reach their potential,” Roberts said. “We want to stay healthy. We want them to have fun, enjoy playing and competing in the Pac-12.”

“Every week, we want to get better. I’ve learned in my years of coaching that you really have to coach the process. You can’t coach outcome and get so wrapped up in thinking about the end of the season or what we are going to try to achieve.”

Utah isn’t shying away from competition in pre-conference scheduling. They will take on Oklahoma, Boston College, Cal State Northridge, Creighton and BYU before their first Pac-12 game Jan. 2, against Washington State at home.

Arizona

There is both bad and good news at Arizona this season.

The bad news is that the Wildcats, who finished 10-20 in 2014-2015 and eleventh in the Pac-12, graduated their top scorer in Candice Warthen and their vocal and emotional leader in Alli Gloyd.

The good news is that three returning starters, eight reserves and four freshman that make up this year’s roster are beginning the season healthy and eligible for the first time in several years.

Last season injury delayed the freshman debut of guard Taryn Griffey, who is the daughter of baseball great Ken Griffey Jr. She is ready to go now, as is junior guard Lauren Evans, who sat out last year after transferring from Virginia Tech. Arizona coach Niya Butts, who enters her eighth season, has been running fully-stocked practices.

Gloyd is also back, as assistant director of operations for the team.

“I’m fired up about the season…..I’m just excited to get the ball going,” Butts said. “We have a healthy team for the first time in a long time, and I feel really good about that. We’ve had some competitive practices so far, and I like what I’m seeing. I’m just looking forward to the season.”

Most anything would be a step up for the Wildcats, who have danced with mediocrity for quite some time. They went to the WNIT once during Butts’ tenure, in 2011, but have finished mostly near the bottom of the conference each year. Arizona’s last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2005; the program’s all-time record over 41 years is 537-642.

Returning starters this season are junior forward LaBrittney Jones (9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), junior guard Malena Washington (6.9 ppg) and senior guard Keyahndra Cannon (5.5 ppg). Key reserves Charise Holloway (6.6 ppg), JaLea Bennett (4.5 ppg), Breanna Workman (4.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Dejza James (3.6 ppg) are also back.

The freshman are a diverse group. Forwards A’Shanti Coleman and Destiny Graham both hail from the Bay Area, where they were high scorers. Michal Miller is a prolific guard from Indiana, where she averaged 24.9 points per game as a high school senior. Center Eugene Simonet-Keller is from France, where she played for the French Women’s National Team. At 6-foot-8, she is the tallest Wildcat player ever signed.

This looks to be a rebuilding year, with a total of six newcomers including Griffey and Evans. They will need to gel quickly with the seven potent returnees if they want to stay afloat in a conference that gets stronger by the month. It would undoubtedly help Butts keep her job, too.

Arizona’s pre-conference schedule is challenging as usual: they face Kansas, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Florida Gulf Coast, Gardner-Webb and George Mason before kicking off Pac-12 action Jan. 2 against Stanford, at home.

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