LAS VEGAS – What happens in Vegas … may never happen again.
The Pac-12 Conference gathered its women’s basketball teams Tuesday for one last Media Day hurrah before the majority of schools bolt for other conferences after the season. With tip-off just over a week away, here is a team-by-team look at what to expect in 2023-24.
Arizona: Play your role
After upsetting numerous teams in recent years, coach Adia Barnes amplifies playing the property role. In 2021, the Wildcats beat Indiana to reach the university’s first women’s Final Four appearance. The Wildcats went on to upset the Connecticut Huskies to play in the program’s first NCAA tournament championship game.
The key to accomplishing the unbelievable, Barnes said, is to show up ready to walk into the role needed.
“We always say this as coaches: ‘You want a player that actually wants to play their position,’ and Breya Cunningham, she’s a post player that actually wants to be a post,” Barnes said. “That’s weird nowadays, but she’s been exciting, great hands, getting in great shape, finishing well around the basket, does not play like a freshman so far.”
As much as Barnes sets the bar high for her team, she also embraces innovation. Instead of questioning NIL developments and the transfer portal, Barnes accepts the current terms and conditions that come along with running a high-level program.
“I think you have to coach differently in general from when I started,” Barnes said. “I’m only eight years in, and the kids are very different than they were eight years ago. I think with the portal, with retaining players, I think you’re always having to recruit your players, and that’s just what it is. There’s NIL, there’s so many different things. You just always have to be changing as a coach and change.”
Arizona State: “We’re healthy”
After ASU ended the season 1-17 in conference play, the league’s head coaches and media members picked the Sun Devils last in their 2023-24 Pac-12 women’s basketball preseason poll.
ASU announced recently that senior guard Tyi Skinner would be out for the season with a knee injury. During her first year in Tempe, she posted 20 points or more 15 times.
Despite losing her No. 1 guard, coach Natasha Adair opened Media Day with optimism.
“We’re healthy, and I’ll start there,” Adair said. “It’s just exciting to be able to be in the gym now with the team that a year ago we just didn’t have this opportunity.”
This statement may leave some perplexed, but Adair said although Skinner is not on the court making shots along the perimeter, she is still adding to the team’s overall morale.
“With the 10 newcomers, it’s next woman up,” Adair said. “But I will tell you, Tyi three days after surgery was in the gym crutching around leading and hasn’t stopped yet. In the huddles, talking to Tray (Trayanna Crisp), talking to Jaddan (Simmons) and talking to the team and that’s what we will continue to have even if she’s not on the court. So (her injury is) a blow, but she’s just going to lead in a different way.”
Sophomore guard Crisp is ready to step up as the new No. 1 and has even taken a page out of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders’ book.
“We’re coming,” Crisp said. “That’s all I can say. We’re coming.”
California: 3 degrees hotter
Outside of the Golden Bears’ traditions on the court, the current team is trying to take advantage of all the academic opportunities the university has to offer.
Graduate guard Leilani McIntosh already has two degrees and is currently studying to earn her third.
“It’s a blessing,” McIntosh said. “I’m so happy that I got this opportunity and still get to play basketball at the highest level. My mom is very proud.”
While juggling a challenging academic schedule, McIntosh is trying to elevate herself beyond honorable mention. Coach Charmin Smith believes the keys to a more productive season will be having her freshmen, transfers and returners on the same page.
“Versatility that means multiple ball handling options, shooters all over the floor, several really active and aggressive defenders,” Smith said. “We can really just do it all right now, and I’m excited about the pieces that we’ve added and I’m excited about the way the returners have continued to develop and grow.”
In the offseason, McIntosh has been intentional about working on her shot and embodying all aspects of what it means to be a point guard.
“It’s easy when Charmin is constantly in my head, like ‘shoot the ball,’ and you have teammates around you that have so much confidence in you,” McIntosh said. “You sometimes feel like, ‘Oh, I took a bad shot,’ but they’re always there to keep picking you up. I think as a point guard it becomes more of a threat when I’m able to score the ball as well, because I am able to get my teammates open because now they have to respect the shot as well.”
Colorado: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
For coach JR Payne, the 2023-2024 season will be about maintaining. Some would say maintaining is easier than rebuilding, but Payne understands the target on her team’s back is bigger than ever.
This year, four out of five Colorado starters from last season are returning to Boulder. Payne believes the team has a clear identity of who they are.
“There’s no real question marks with most of those kids,” Payne said.
The Buffaloes’ non-conference schedule puts Payne’s starters to the immediate test as they face LSU, the defending national champions, in a nationally televised season opener.
“I would say nobody in the world has higher expectations of ourselves than we do,” Payne said. “Our veterans do a great job of making sure that we’re holding ourselves to the standard that we believe we’re capable of. LSU opening night, that’s obviously a very tall task, but our team wants that. They want to be challenged.”
Payne emphasized that her team has nothing to prove by playing the Tigers. She believes her team is putting in the work and it will reflect on the scoreboard as the season progresses.
“They’ve earned the shine and they’re going to continue to, the points and the rebounds and the steals and all those things are going to tally up in the stat sheet, but they don’t necessarily care about that stuff, but they’re definitely deserving,” Payne said.
The Buffaloes’ roster also includes redshirt freshman Shelomi Sanders, the daughter of the Colorado football coach. Many people tried to persuade Payne into letting Deion “Prime” Sanders style the eight-year coach for her game against the Tigers to match the energy and flash from LSU coach Kim Mulkey. But Payne is sticking with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
Oregon: WNBA University
Coach Kelly Graves has been exposing his players to the endless possibilities basketball can afford them if they simply let it. Since his days at the University of Portland in the 1990s, he has made it his mission to take teams abroad.
“I think the (European) trip was just like a blessing in disguise, being able to bond with our team early,” sophomore guard Chance Gray said. “Everybody got there in July and June, so just getting to know each other, I think we learned a lot about each other. We were able to get closer.”
During the offseason, the Ducks practiced and played in Greece and England. The chance to practice for 10 consecutive days was a greater opportunity for his team than the actual games, Graves said.
To continue to elevate his players to the next level, Graves depends on honesty.
“I think part of that is we may not be quite as talented offensively as we have been in the past,” he said. “Don’t have a ton of great scorers. So we’re going to have to maybe win more games in the 60s and 70s than we’ve done in the past, but we want to get out and run.”
Graves believes in his ability to help players grow, including Gray.
“I think last year we saw Chance have some great games,” Graves said. “Now we just need her to have those great games consistently. I think she will. She really sets the tone in practice. She’s a tough, tough competitor. She comes every day. It’s all about business with her.”
With his team’s no-nonsense demeanor, hardcore work ethic and access to a quality coaching staff that includes New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu and Oti Gildon, Graves believes his team is better off after crossing the pond in the offseason.
Oregon State: the perfect match
Coach Scott Rueck believes building relationships lead to championships. He felt as if his players were beginning to connect right before COVID-19, but that progress was put on hold with the rest of the world.
“We took a step back, no question,” Rueck said. “Now this group is re-establishing the culture that we had, and they’re competitors like we’ve had … Because of that, I’m extremely optimistic. I love them. I think we have all the pieces that make a great team. We need to grow together.”
Voters for the Pac-12 women’s basketball preseason poll picked Oregon State 10th. Last year, the Beavers finished the season 20-15, resulting in missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.
Following her coach’s lead, sophomore forward Timea Gardiner believes she is constantly doing her part to build relationships with her teammates.
“This year we know what it takes to be a competitive team in the Pac-12, and we’re just excited because we have all the pieces,” Gardner said.
After becoming the first player in league history to be named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year in the same season, Oregon State forward Reagan Beers believes her connection with teammates helped land those awards.
“Our culture and our team is very centered on relationships,” Beers said. “If our relationships are good, we tend to play good. If we’re on the same page with one another off the court, we’re going to be on the same page on the court.”
Stanford: Cardinal culture
The Stanford Cardinal come in at No. 3 in the preseason conference polls. With a team that fans are used to seeing at the top of the Pac-12, coach Tara VanDerveer said that prediction speaks to the depth and competitiveness of the conference.
“The Pac-12 has, as long as I can remember, always been extremely strong and deep, and this year is no different,” VanDerveer said. “We want to have competitive games. And so whether it’s Utah or Colorado or UCLA, I mean we have great programs. No one can take anyone for granted, and that’s a great situation to be in.”
Stanford finished last season with a second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. Graduate guard Hannah Jump said despite the way the season ended, the team is using it to propel itself forward heading into this season.
“Bringing into this season, taking the things we learned, whether that’s me needing to be a better leader, just needing more positive energy every day,” Jump said. “Just kind of taking those little bits and applying them every day we step into the gym.”
Stanford has four of last season’s starting five returning for the 2023-24 season. With the addition of three freshmen, VanDerveer is excited about this season’s team.
“The Stanford culture I think is very strong and positive, and we’re just trying to build on that,” VanDerveer said.
UCLA: No sophomore slump
UCLA finished the 2022-23 season with an appearance in the Sweet 16, and the team is ready to carry that success into this season. Picked to finish second in the conference, the Bruins believe talent is not the only thing that contributes to success.
The Bruins’ sophomore class has shown major growth from its first college season, which has only strengthened the team’s culture and chemistry.
“I think we have kids that have a lot of character, work ethic, and they’re very driven and so I don’t have to beg anyone to get into the gym,” coach Cori Close said. “I actually think that’s probably the most powerful piece of this particular team.”
The Bruins have a large part of their team returning this season, along with new additions Lauren Betts and Amanda Muse.
“They’ve been great,” forward Emily Bessoir said about UCLA’s newcomers. “They’ve been sponges and just learning how we do things, how we train, our standards.”
UCLA has a tough non-conference schedule, including games against Purdue, Connecticut and Florida State.
USC: Its trojan horse
There is a whole lot more to this year’s Trojans, and it comes in the shape of the nation’s number one recruit, JuJu Watkins.
Watkins joins a program that ended the 2022-23 season with an early exit in the NCAA tournament. Even with the spotlight shining brightly on her first season, Watkins isn’t letting it affect her on the court.
“I feel like I don’t worry too much about what other people think I should do or how they think I should approach the game,” Watkins said. “Just always thinking of my goals and how I plan to approach the game, but ultimately the team goal is to win, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
Coach Lindsay Gottlieb praised Watkins and her competitive nature, always showing up to the gym ready. Gottlieb wants Watkins to still enjoy the true freshman college experience, but also understands that Watkins’ experience will be anything but typical.
“Going into it with that duality of awareness I think will give us a chance to allow her to shine,” Gottlieb said. “But really, I need to get out of the way and allow her to be her because she’s so special.”
After the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014, the Trojans are ready to compete and get back to a winning culture on the court.
“We’ve got some talent in that gym,” Gottlieb said. “But really I think it’s that collective identity of trying to get USC basketball back to heights that we’ve been at in the past, and it’s an exciting journey.”
Utah: Started from the bottom
The Utah women’s basketball program had a rich history from its Mountain West days. Now, coach Lynne Roberts and her team are building Utah’s Pac-12 history from the ground up, as short as that tenure may now be.
“When I took over, we hadn’t done much in the Pac-12 at all as a program,” Roberts said. “I like doing things – to do things for the first time, meaning try to win here for the first time, grow attendance for the first time, do all these things, and then I also really enjoy doing things that people say you can’t do.”
In the 2020-21 season, Utah finished with a 5-16 record. Just two seasons later, they finished 27-5 as co-conference champions and made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
The narrative is changing for Utah as it transforms from being the hunters to being the hunted, but that is not changing the team’s mentality on the court.
“I still think what makes us great is that we still have so much to prove,” Roberts said. “I think that’s what our team is about. We’re very kind of blue collar. We’re great because of the sum of the parts. That’s not going to change.”
Two key players that make up that sum of those parts are junior Gianna Kneepkens and senior Alissa Pili. Roberts had nothing but praise for her two stars, saying that Kneepkens is one of the most competitive players she has ever coached, and that Pili is not only talented but a highly regarded teammate.
Coming into the 2023-24 season, Utah is projected as a conference favorite, and the Utes are ready for the challenge.
“I think we take a lot of pride in protecting our house,” Pili said. “If somebody comes into our house, we’re not going to take it easy. We’re not going to just be messing around.”
Washington: Set the foundation
The Huskies finished last season with a deep run in the WNIT, and that was only the beginning. Entering her third season at the helm, Tina Langley wants her team to continue building off last year’s success as it continues to grow and improve.
“I know last year was a foundational year,” said junior forward Dalayah Daniels. “I think it’s just a testimony to how much we’ve been working.”
The Huskies’ run to the Fab 4 in the WNIT gave the team an opportunity to earn more experience on the court, and also to continue developing as a team. Just because last year was seen as a building year does not mean the growth stops.
“Every year is a building year,” senior Lauren Schwartz said. “But it’s just super exciting, how we ended last year. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my teammates.”
Aside from their deep tournament run, Washington has other elements they are building around. While integrating a new-look offense last year, the Huskies pulled off a major upset against Stanford, a moment that many said they saw coming.
“I will say … I did not feel a time in the game where we were thinking we might beat Stanford,” Langley said. “It felt like ‘What play are we running next and what are we doing with this next possession?’ So that’s the way we want to play the game.”
Washington State: Enjoy the past, focus on the present
Washington State is coming off of a strong end to its season, winning the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas and earning a berth to the NCAA tournament. Although the team did take the time during the offseason to reflect on its spectacular finish, the Cougars are anything but complacent heading into the 2023-24 season.
“Of course you cannot forget what we did in Vegas because that’s incredible,” said fifth-year center Bella Murekatete. “But I think it’s time for us to just kind of put that in the back and start a new season and focus on going back-to-back.”
The Cougars, who finished 23-11 last season, are looking to keep the momentum that propelled the team past UCLA to its first Pac-12 trophy. The strong finish does not just impact the team on the court, but the entire Washington State community.
“It’s just a family,” coach Kamie Ethridge said. “You feel it. You feel the support. You feel the love, the support in every single way.”
Women’s basketball is on the rise in Pullman, Washington, and it’s noticed in the rise of season ticket sales. A big focus for the Cougars this season is to make Beasley Coliseum a home court environment where visiting opponents cannot walk out of there with a win.
The team’s success last season is the driving force behind building that competitive culture and, as Ethridge said, has validated the Cougars as a competitive basketball program.
“We don’t have the shiniest, sexiest stuff, but that doesn’t come into factor when you step on the court and play,” Ethridge said.