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Pac-12 gauntlet has conference members primed for NCAA tournament

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer leaned into the microphone following her team’s 66-57 conference tournament semifinal win over Oregon State last week and remarked that she would love to see four Pac-12 teams in the Final Four this year.

To her left, senior Hannah Jump scrunched up her face, shook her head and laughed.

“I wouldn’t,” she mouthed.

Jump is ready for new opponents, and new challenges, and after a season of beating up on each other, the rest of the Pac-12 likely agrees.

But they’re also grateful for the gauntlet of conference opponents, each with their own unique style of play. From Princeton offenses, to two-post lineups, to elite individual scorers, there isn’t much the Pac-12 didn’t provide. And that gives teams confidence heading into the NCAA tournament.

“The beauty of it is we get all different offenses,” Utah assistant Gavin Peterson said. “I think every school in the Pac-12 benefits when it comes tournament time, because they've been kind of introduced to a lot of different styles.”

Peterson joined the staff at Utah nine years ago when Lynne Roberts was named head coach. Since then, he’s served as the team’s defensive guru. This season, he said, was one of the hardest in his tenure in terms of putting together scouting reports and defensive gameplans.

Arizona coach Adia Barnes agrees, saying it starts with coaches that know how to use their individual player strengths.

“There isn't one bad coach in our conference, unfortunately,” she joked. “We have very good tactical coaches and very different teams. You have to adjust. That’s what basketball is, and that’s why I think we are prepared for the NCAA tournament.”

Seven Pac-12 teams are projected to earn tournament bids, starting with potential No. 1 seeds USC and Stanford. UCLA, Utah, Colorado and Oregon State are the four other sure-things.

California and Washington are on the outside of the bubble and projected among the first teams left out of the field. Arizona is slated to be one of the final teams to earn a bid.

The Wildcats started the Pac-12 tournament weekend by taking on Washington, which runs a Princeton offense, and ended with a quarterfinals loss to eventual champion USC.

“Washington, they're very patient. It's very slow,” Barnes said. “It's a hard thing to play. You guard like seven back cuts before a shot. Then you play USC, they're very different. They have a go-to player, they have JuJu [Watkins], who is the best freshman in the country, and they have athletic players around.”

The players around Watkins were the key to USC winning the Pac-12 tournament, as McKenzie Forbes scored 26 points, Kayla Padilla had 13 and Rayah Marshall added 10 in the championship game.

“You have to pick your poison,” USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “What are you going to take away?”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 10: JuJu Watkins #12 of the USC Trojans is defended by Elena Bosgana #20 and Cameron Brink #22 of the Stanford Cardinal in the second half of the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference women's basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Trojans defeated the Cardinal 74-61. (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)
JuJu Watkins of USC is defended by Elena Bosgana, left, and Cameron Brink of Stanford in the second half of the championship game of the Pac-12 women's basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2024, in Las Vegas. The Trojans defeated the Cardinal 74-61. (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images) (Candice Ward via Getty Images)

At this point in the season, the Wildcats were as prepared as they could be to transition between the methodical offense of Washington and the athletic weapons of USC, but early in Pac-12 play, flipping the switch is more challenging. The conference played its games on Fridays and Saturdays this season, leaving little time between contests to brush up on opponents.

The style of play may differ drastically, but the caliber of opponents doesn’t. With six top-25 teams in the conference this season, nights off were hard to come by.

For example, during a month stretch, between Jan. 21 and Feb. 18, Oregon State played just one unranked opponent – Oregon – but battled Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Colorado and Utah twice. All five of those opponents were in the top 20.

Despite the intense stretch, Oregon State was able to go 6-2, with a loss to Stanford to start the stretch and one to USC to end it.

The Beavers were the surprise team in the Pac-12 this season after going 13-18 last year – at least to a national audience. Those within the conference knew what was coming.

“They do a great job exposing your weaknesses,” Peterson said. “They just pick you apart. So you just have to be ready for that and try to disrupt them, get them out of rhythm.”

Peterson says Utah tends to go “big picture” with its early scouting reports, prioritizing three or four key concepts.

“A lot of times that is pick-and-roll coverages, and where they are set on the floor determines how we defend them,” he said. “If a team is heavy on ball screens, we address those things. If they are heavy on post play, we think about what counters we can do for those post isolations.”

After defeating Arizona State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, Utah had to contend with UCLA, a team with weapons at every position. The Bruins center their offense around 6-foot-7 Lauren Betts, but Kiki Rice, Charisma Osborne, Londynn Jones, Gabriela Jaquez and Angela Dugalic are all capable scorers.

“They have so many weapons,” Peterson said. “They are going to move the ball and look for their best shot. Defensively, your job is to keep them moving, keep them looking and missing those windows. That’s easier said than done.”

Utah provides its own challenges offensively, starting with post Alissa Pili. The senior is listed at 6-2, but she isn’t afraid to admit that she’s actually closer to 5-10. But even though she’s undersized, Pili is a challenge to guard because of her strength and skilled footwork.

“Everything they do starts with Pili,” VanDerveer said. “And they shoot the ball well. They are probably more of an offensive team [than most of the Pac-12], but their transition is fabulous, so you’d better get back on defense.”

Stanford was able to hold Pili to 16 points (she averages 20.8 per game), but a lot of that, VanDerveer said, comes from being familiar with her game. Other non-Pac-12 teams don’t have that luxury. Take South Carolina for example, who gave up 37 points to Pili – her career high – in their December matchup.

“We play against intensive scouting-report defense,” VanDerveer said. “People study a lot of film in the Pac-12 and try to take away people’s strengths, maximize their own strengths and minimize their weaknesses.”

For Stanford, those strengths are in the paint with an elite post duo in Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen. Both average a double-double, but do it in different ways, with Brink staying around the rim or extending for 3-pointers, and Iriafen executing in the mid-range.

“They are such a great one-two punch inside that it provides a difficult matchup for a lot of teams,” Peterson said. “And when a shot goes up, both of them are capable of getting offensive rebounds.”

The term “difficult matchup” could be applied to almost any team in the Pac-12. Which is why Jump scoffed at the idea of wanting to meet her conference foes in March Madness.

“Night in and night out, you’re playing against great competition,” VanDerveer said. “And having played against it, you feel confident going into the NCAA tournament.”