<
>

Is the Pac-12 better than ever?

June Daugherty has been in this conference for nearly 30 years. The Pac-12's designated eternal optimist has never sounded more encouraged.

"This conference is going to be better than it's been in a long time," said Daugherty, Washington State's coach. "Let's stop talking about getting five or six teams in the postseason and talk about eight or nine."

Charli Turner Thorne, who has banked almost as much Pac-12 time as Daugherty, agrees wholeheartedly.

"On paper, this is the best the conference has ever been," Arizona State's coach said. "We were young for a couple of years, but we aren't young any more. This is exciting. This is what we work for."

The Pac-12 is expected to have more punch than parity this season, with the prospect of putting a lot of teams in the NCAA tournament. The conference has not sent more than five teams to the field of 64 since 2006.

The significant step-up has been a function of improved recruiting across the conference and the ability to keep some of the West Coast's best talent closer to home, when in past years those players have taken their talents east or south. And also, undeniably, because of the television exposure provided by the Pac-12 Network.

It's a top-to-bottom improvement. The teams in the lower half of the conference, the ones that in past years have mostly served to drag on the RPIs of the top-tier teams, have made big leaps forward as well.

The biggest sign that the Pac-12 is suddenly a power conference might come with a change in the top of the standings. There's a perception that perennial champion Stanford is more vulnerable than it has been in years and that there is a line of teams waiting to pounce on the opportunity.

Stanford, which has won at least a share of the past 14 league championships, simply doesn't look dominant in this field. The Cardinal are moving forward following the departure of Chiney Ogwumike, have shelved the triangle offense that Tara VanDerveer ran for nearly a dozen years and are relying on the rapid development of some young players to keep them in the pole position.

But none of their Pac-12 compatriots are writing off the Cardinal yet.

"I think their demise is way overestimated," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "But I think it's indicative of how deep the league is that people think that, based on the talent level, that Stanford won't be the clear-cut favorite they have been in the past."

"Stanford is Stanford," said Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who frequently scheduled the Cardinal in the nonconference when he coached at Gonzaga. "They just reload with more All-Americans."

"There's so much attention on the Pac-12, and a lot of people feel like it's going to be a great season. It's as deep and exciting as it's been since I've been here." Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb

But in fact, Cal earned the media vote as the league favorite. The Bears return the veteran inside-outside combination of Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd and add a group of talented freshmen to what is a short roster of 10 players.

"There's so much attention on the Pac-12, and a lot of people feel like it's going to be a great season," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "It's as deep and exciting as it's been since I've been here. And there's a great feel to our group. I'm excited to see this version of Cal basketball."

Oregon State is coming off a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament and returns point guard Sydney Wiese and four other starters -- 95 percent of its scoring and 96 percent of its rebounding -- from last season's 24-11 team, which reached the Pac-12 tournament title game. The Beavers are ranked No. 20 in the country coming into the season, the program's first ranking since 1996.

"Coming off the year we had feels incredible," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "They want to compete and win and expect to. And that's a far cry from where we started."

Arizona State reached the second round of the NCAA tournament as well, and the Sun Devils aren't thrilled that they were picked to finish sixth.

"We definitely plan on building on last season and finishing in the top third of the conference," Turner Thorne said.

Washington, with Neighbors in his second season as head coach, has one of the best backcourts in the country with Jazmine Davis and Kelsey Plum. Daugherty says the Cougars are "the most talented team I've had in 30 years of coaching."

UCLA has the nation's No. 1 recruiting class and starts at No. 23 in the Associated Press poll despite being the only team in the rankings with a losing record from the previous season.

"It's been a long time since I've been this energized to coach," UCLA coach Cori Close said.

And Oregon is marking the first season under Graves, who turned Gonzaga into one of the country's consistently best mid-major programs.

For the first time in a long time, the coaches and media were split with their preseason picks for league champion. The media tabbed Cal as the early favorite; the coaches stuck with Stanford.

"Do I expect a big battle?" VanDerveer asked. "I expect one every year."