Paralleling a trend throughout NCAA Division I basketball this season, parity has come to the Pac-12 Conference.
The UCLA Bruins, who moved up five spots to No. 15 in today’s AP top 25 poll, beat both California and Stanford over the weekend for the first Bay Area schools sweep since 2006. It was only the fifth such sweep in school history. UCLA also snapped a losing streak to the Cardinal that dated back to Jan. 4, 2008.
Long-dominant Stanford and more recent power house Cal, on the other hand, are both struggling through growing pains with young teams and short benches due to injuries. The Bruins easily handled the Bears, who had only seven suited up to play Friday, 75-56. USC then beat Cal two days later, 61-47.
Last night the Cardinal shot 20 percent on the game against UCLA, and scored a season-low four points in the second quarter as they fell, 56-36. It was Stanford’s first double-digit loss to a conference opponent in nearly 12 years.
UCLA coach Cori Close and her players reveled in the moment.
“Obviously this is a major stepping stone for our program,” Close said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Bay Area sweep, and the reason that means a lot to us is they’re really great programs.”
The win was punctuated by a locker room visit from Nan Wooden, daughter of Bruins coaching legend John Wooden, who told the UCLA women that her father would have been proud of them.
“Coach Wooden used to always say ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail,’” Close said. “We were completely prepared going in, I thought we had a really good game plan. These players executed the game plan – that is the difference. We didn’t do anything differently as coaches; they bought in and really executed the game plan.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, on the other hand, acknowledged her team’s shortcomings.
“We shot miserably,” she said. “We need to use better fakes, better ball movement. We have a lot of work to do. A lot of our problem is that we don’t play at the pace we need to play at. We don’t move quick enough, we don’t read the defense quick enough.”
Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose team played the Cardinal in last year’s Pac-12 Tournament Championship game, had similar criticism of her squad after their loss in Westwood.
“I’m not going to let us off the hook talking about being short-handed or being young anymore,” Gottlieb said. “Now we want to take that to the next step and face up to the issues. We have a bunch of fighters, we have a lot of talent, and we need to figure out how to maximize that in the right spots.”
“While it sucks – just sucks to be where we are right now, I have absolutely no doubt that the players that are in our locker room are with us and these things that we’re seeing are ultimately going to get us where we want to be.”
Last year’s conference tournament title was the 11th for the Cardinal after a decade in which they dominated the league. But the loss of seniors Amber Orrange and Taylor Greenfield chipped away at the roster. Similarly Cal, who made a Final Four trip under Gottlieb in 2013, lost two of the country’s best players in Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray last season. In the meantime, the rest of the Pac-12 has caught up.
Inspired by a plea from Washington coach Mike Neighbors, conference teams began scheduling tougher opponents in preconference play. This year, the Pac-12 has the top Rating Percentage Index (RPI) of any conference in Division I. As a result, some of the traditional conference power teams have switched places with a few of the historic lower-ranked teams in the standings.
Currently, coach Charli Turner Thorne’s Arizona State Sun Devils are ranked 8th in the AP top 25 poll for the second week in a row – a program record. Last year’s regular-season champions Oregon State are ranked 9th, with Washington and UCLA only one game behind them. Who will win the regular-season title and the tournament championship is anyone’s guess midway through the season. The Pac-12 could also have five or more teams in the NCAA Tournament.
VanDerveer, who has coached the Cardinal for 31 years, said the growth of the conference is from top to bottom.
“The Pac-12 has always been really good,” she said. “(Stanford) for a long time has been a lot more experienced and have had a lot more talent than we do on this particular team. One difference may be that if you look at a team like Cal, who is a really good team, and they’re 1-7, they’re much better than a 1-7 old-time Pac-12 team, so the bottom teams are much better.”
For Close, it’s been a full-circle trip, as she went to VanDerveer’s basketball camps as a kid.
“My first camp, Charli Turner Thorne was a player and a counselor there, Close said. “I have the utmost respect for Tara – what she’s done for Stanford, the Pac-12 and what she’s done for the game.”
“I have the utmost respect for that program, the example they’ve set, and for the impact it’s had on my life. As we move forward I want to tip my hat and acknowledge that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for people like Tara blazing trails for us.”
(as of Jan. 25, 2016)
Arizona State, 8-0
Oregon State, 7-1
Washington State, 3-5