League closing gap with Stanford

Stanford senior Chiney Ogwumike, No. 13, is a national player of the year candidate. James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

How long has it been since the Pac-12 Conference has been a national afterthought, a place that only infrequently captures anyone's attention east of the Mountain time zone?

Stanford's run of five straight Final Four appearances cemented the league's one-horse status for half a decade, and then Cal took a sledgehammer to that wall, breaking through in New Orleans in a way that opens things up for the entire conference just a season later.

That doesn't mean every team in the Pac-12 is Final Four-worthy, but there's a real sense of possibility now, that it doesn't have to just be the Cardinal and everyone else, not with an infusion of new coaches and not with a Pac-12 Network that is offering exposure and appeal to top-level recruits, who are proving fond of the fact that their parents can see them play on TV.

A feeling is palpable in the West Coast's premier conference, a sense of legitimate hope and deserved expectation.

"We are trying to close the gap," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "And I think it's helped the league that we are starting to close that gap. Cal helped with that and shared the [regular-season conference] championship.

"I don't know if enough of us can beat them to take the title, but I think you could see a handful of teams knocking them off."

The Pac-12 has found its balance, with a large grouping of teams that will compete for spots in the upper half of the league standings and, perhaps more importantly, NCAA consideration. Last season, the conference got four teams in the bracket of 64, and at the end of this season, there could be more.

Yes, everyone expects Stanford to win the league again. All-American Chiney Ogwumike is the centerpiece of an experienced roster with four returning starters and an infusion of young talent. The Cardinal are hungry after being eliminated in the Sweet 16 last spring, Stanford's earliest NCAA exit since 2004.

Cal liked the taste of the Final Four, which raised expectations for a team that graduated 2013 leading scorer Layshia Clarendon but which will rely heavily on talented juniors Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray.

The rest of the Pac-12 looks to be a competitive mosh pit.

Washington is looking to build on the momentum that finally has the Huskies solidly back in the top tier of the conference. Coach Kevin McGuff left suddenly for Ohio State, but Neighbors takes over and is looking to keep climbing behind scoring guard Jazmine Davis.

Colorado reached the NCAA tournament last season behind Chucky Jeffery, and the Buffaloes have improved every season under Linda Lappe.

In Los Angeles, UCLA coach Cori Close is trying to not let the injury bug undermine her team's prospects of being a factor in the race. At Southern California, a new era begins under Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who wants to take her alma mater back to the NCAA brackets for the first time behind senior forward Cassie Harberts.

Arizona State didn't take its ninth-place finish very well last season and is looking for a rejuvenation under Charli Turner Thorne. Oregon State feels like it can be a threat with a bevy of talented young players.

Washington State's eternal optimist, coach June Daugherty, feels like her team could finish in the top half of the conference, while teams like Utah -- playing this season without forward Taryn Wicijowski -- Oregon and Arizona look better on paper.

"I think we are trending up," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "There's not a night off in this conference. There seems like there is more of a commitment for women's basketball. I think it's going to be even more difficult to win."

Whether any of the other 11 teams in the Pac-12 are good enough to actually unseat Stanford isn't the point anymore. The possibility exists, and that makes the Pac-12 as interesting a place as it has been in awhile.

Predicted order of finish

1. Stanford (33-3 in 2012-13): The Cardinal have won or shared 13 straight Pac-12 titles, and there's no real reason to think they can't do it again. Not with four returning starters, including national player of the year candidate Ogwumike. The senior should have more help this season from fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef, junior point guard Amber Orrange and a highly rated freshman class.

2. California (32-4): The Bears tied Stanford for the regular-season title in 2012-13 and then passed the Cardinal in the NCAA backstretch on the way to the program's first Final Four appearance. Cal moves on without leading scorer Clarendon, who just finished her first season in the WNBA, and will rely heavily on juniors Gray and Boyd to lead the way to another deep run in the spring. Uber-athletic forward Gennifer Brandon is coming off August surgery for a stress fracture of her right tibia.

3. Colorado (25-7): The Buffaloes were a pleasant surprise a season ago and, with the graduation of Jeffrey, will depend heavily on sophomore forward Arielle Roberson, the reigning Pac-12 freshman of the year. Senior guard Brittany Wilson also returns to anchor the backcourt.

4. Washington (21-12): The Huskies lost McGuff to Ohio State last spring after posting back-to-back 20 win seasons, but it doesn't look as if the change will halt their momentum. Neighbors was elevated to his first head-coaching job; he has talent with junior guard Davis, who should compete for the league scoring title, and incoming freshman Kelsey Plum.

5. UCLA (26-8): The Bruins have to wait another year for the nation's No. 1 recruiting class to come in, and they also have a pair of preseason injuries that have set them back. But Close is convinced that her team will be better than people think behind sixth-year senior Atonye Nyingifa.

6. USC (11-20): The Women of Troy, who finished last season with their worst record since 1999, will play their first season under new coach -- and USC legend -- Cooper-Dyke. Can they snap a run of seven straight seasons without an NCAA berth? Harberts is the leader here. She was third in the Pac-12 in scoring last season at 18.0 points a game.

7. Arizona State (13-18): The Sun Devils, who missed the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons, have four starters back, including senior guard Deja Mann, who was out last season with a knee injury. ASU is putting an emphasis on offense this season, looking to score with the top teams in the league.

8. Utah (23-14): The Utes, who have nine underclassmen on the roster, can't catch a break when it comes to injuries. Wicijowski is out for the season with an ACL injury. Senior Michelle Plouffe, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a season ago, will carry the load for a team that could be a sleeper near the top of the standings.

9. Washington State (11-20): Daugherty, who has a team with just two seniors but three returning starters, thinks her team is good enough to finish in the top five in the conference standings. Sophomore guard Lia Galdeira averaged 14.8 points per game last season.

10. Oregon State (10-21): The Beavers are young, but under Rueck, they have been good enough to pull off some surprise wins. This season's OSU team returns four starters, led by sophomore guard Jaime Weisner, who led the team in scoring and 3-pointers (48).

11. Oregon (4-27): This could be Paul Westhead's last season in Eugene, Ore., where his run-and-gun offense has fallen flat because of a spate of injuries and a lack of players with the right offensive skill sets. But Oregon returns all five starters, including Jillian Alleyne, who led them in scoring and rebounding last season.

12. Arizona (12-18): Niya Butts has Candice Werthen back on the floor after the senior guard missed all of last season with a knee injury. But the Wildcats, who move forward without leading scorer Davellyn Whyte and starting post Alli Gloyd (who sustained a season-ending knee injury in October), can ill afford to merely get a little better in a hotly competitive conference.

Players to watch

Brittany Boyd, Cal: The Bears' junior point guard, the team's second-leading scorer a season ago (12.5 PPG), takes over leadership duties with the graduation of Clarendon. Boyd will be a go-to scoring option. She has matured out of some of the more maddening mistakes of her youth.

Jazmine Davis, Washington: Davis, a scorer, was the Pac-12 freshman of the year two seasons ago. She led the Huskies last season with 19.3 points a game, including a season-best 37-point effort against USC.

Arielle Roberson, Colorado: The lanky, quick Roberson ranked second on the Buffaloes in scoring (12.1 PPG) and rebounding (6.2 PPG) last season.