LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In an attempt to mimic postseason rhythms of life normally spent on the road, despite playing the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and a Sweet 16 game at home, the Kentucky women are staying in a hotel some ways from campus.
Despite making three cross-country flights in the span of about a week, with the prospect of a fourth looming, Washington got comfortable in advance of its game against the host Friday night. Huskies coach Mike Neighbors, whose long-time significant other resides in the area, advised the team's bus driver on a shortcut to avoid traffic. A cookout awaited the team Thursday night, with Neighbors, a native Arkansan, showing so much Southern hospitality that he even gave out the street address during a news conference.
Washington is making itself at home in Lexington, even as it prepares to face Kentucky.
The Pac-12 would like to do the same this time of year, even if it still needs to take its show on the road to get much of the country to notice how far it has come.
Ranked the best conference in the country by RPI entering the tournament, the Pac-12 matched the SEC by producing a quarter of the Sweet 16. Its total includes Stanford, which plays Notre Dame in the second game in Lexington on Friday, and Washington, which pulled off the tournament's biggest upset with a second-round win against Maryland on that team's home court and now hopes to repeat the feat.
"The Pac-12 Conference has really helped us," Washington All-American Kelsey Plum said of the road to Lexington. "There have been some really tough teams that we've had to face on the road this year. So I think that's prepared us for this game [Friday] night."
Although it is was the northernmost outpost of the Southeastern Conference until Columbia, Missouri, pipped it by less than a degree of latitude, Lexington's antebellum buildings lend it a distinctly Southern feel. Markers chronicle a history that predates by decades any large European settlements in places like Eugene, Oregon; Seattle; or Tempe, Arizona.
The chronology isn't quite as stark when it comes to the basketball histories of the Pac-12 and the rest of the country, but it isn't that far off, either.
There was a time before the NCAA era when UCLA and Ann Meyers won an AIAW national championship. Home at various times to Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller and Tina Thompson, USC won back-to-back championships and made a series of tournament runs. But for nearly three decades, until California advanced to the Final Four three years ago and ended the drought, Stanford was in some ways a lone outpost in the wilderness, its dominance of a conference and region a microcosm of Connecticut's current reign writ large on a national scale.
Entering this year's tournament, the Pac-12 record in the NCAA tournament, minus Stanford's results, was 89-87. For comparison, the SEC without Tennessee was 260-176. Minus the record of its former giant Connecticut, the Big East was still 142-111.
Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who led the Bears to that Final Four appearance in Indianapolis, was on Joanne Boyle's staff at the University of Richmond when Boyle had options to move on to programs in the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 after the 2004-05 season. One of the factors in Boyle's taking the job at Cal, Gottlieb recalled this week, was their conclusion that a program could ascend more quickly in the Pac-12, that the conference was Stanford -- and everyone else.
By the time she returned to Berkeley to take over, that had changed. With Charli Turner Thorne's success at Arizona State and the arrivals of coaches like Washington's Neighbors, Oregon State's Scott Rueck and UCLA's Cori Close (the latter three in action this week), it continues to change. The Pac-12 was deep enough this season that it could withstand the upset that eliminated second-seeded Arizona State at home in the second round and still live up to expectations with its Sweet 16 contingent.
"I think this year is when you're nationally seeing the fruits of that [improvement]," Gottlieb said. "I think it's been on the uptick for several years, but now you're seeing the first really comprehensive results on the national level, which is what we need. I can talk until I'm blue in the face that [UCLA's] Jordin Canada is good and Kelsey Plum is good and [Oregon State's] Jamie Weisner is good, but until the national audience is seeing them, it's hard to believe that."
Stars of that magnitude eventually earn attention no matter where they play, even if there wasn't room for any of Oregon State's three standouts on the Wooden Award's preseason watch list, a fate it is difficult to imagine befalling the reigning conference champion in the ACC or SEC (in the interest of fairness, some in the Pac-12 would suggest the same of Cal's Kristine Anigwe not winning espnW's freshman of the year award).
What the regular season highlighted and the postseason only confirms is the depth of talent now present in the Pac-12. The evidence is players like Washington's Chantel Osahor. Ostensibly a 6-foot-2 post with a back-to-the-basket frame who ranks 15th in the nation in rebounds per game, Osahor is considered the Huskies' backup point guard and ranks 12th in the conference in assists and third on the Huskies in 3-point field goals. The third-leading scorer on the league's fifth-place finisher is still a special player.
"There is not a more instinctive passer in the country. I'm not saying passing post; I'm saying passer, period." UW coach Mike Neighbors on Chantel Osahor
"She's not your prototypical point guard," Neighbors said, matching his team's upset of the tournament against Maryland with the understatement of the tournament. "We run a lot of our action through her in the half court. Kelsey will bring the ball up court, and then she throws it to Chantel. And Chantel makes those reads. There is not a more instinctive passer in the country.
"I'm not saying passing post; I'm saying passer, period."
It's through her that Plum and senior forward Talia Walton get the shots they need.
"She plays basketball like a chess player," Neighbors continued. "She's a couple moves ahead of all of us, including me."
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell suggested that Washington dares teams to beat it shooting from the perimeter, closing down the paint almost entirely. The Huskies, in fact, have gone seven consecutive games without an opponent attempting double-digit free throws, a sign either of extreme good fortune with referees or opponents settling for jumpers. Maryland got four points and no free throws out of Brionna Jones, a post scorer who tested even Connecticut.
It can be no coincidence that Osahor, who totaled 15 rebounds and four steals, played 37 minutes against the Terrapins and averaged 36 minutes in the past seven games. Her practice time is limited by bad knees to the point that she spends one day a week doing only cardio in a pool, but she keeps answering the whistle when games tip.
"She's a terrific rebounder -- she rips rebounds," Gottlieb said. "She takes up a lot of space, and she's great passer. I think one of the reasons they've taken a jump this year to be even better is her defense. What they did to Brionna Jones, where they made her feel sort of surrounded by two, three, four people all the time, they've done to us. ... I think a lot of their defensive efforts in that zone rely on Osahor's ability to take up space, to be more agile than you expect and to get rebounds."
Washington assistant coach Adia Barnes, a former Pac-12 player of the Year at Arizona, described Osahor as the most complete player on the team, noted basketball addict Plum included. And whether it's Osahor or Walton, the Huskies' second-leading scorer, or Stanford's Erica McCall, whom Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer called the nation's most improved player, the Pac-12 has a lot to offer those in other time zones willing to stay up late and watch.
"I think even a couple of years ago, and when I played also, there wasn't recognition," said Barnes, who played at Arizona in 1994-98. "People didn't know a lot about the Pac-12. I think the Pac-12 Network has tremendously helped our league. Now people are able to watch and see there is a lot of talent. I think before, people thought the Pac-12 was really soft. But they didn't see a lot -- they only saw East Coast basketball."
That is valuable if it means people in other parts of the country watching. It is more valuable if it means recruits in Pac-12 territory watching and liking what they see. Of the 15 players in ESPN HoopGurlz's top 100 incoming freshmen who have already committed and are from states home to Pac-12 schools, 11 will stay home and play at a conference school. That matches the greatest number to do so in the past nine classes and represents the best retention percentage. That matters in a region that in recent years alone provided programs elsewhere with the likes of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Ashley and Courtney Paris, Shoni Schimmel and Diana Taurasi (or for that matter, Gonzaga with Courtney Vandersloot and Katelan Redmon).
"I think they were not as highly regarded in the past," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of the perception of the Pac-12. "I think they've always played good basketball, and now they've really kind of stepped up a level. ... So for us, recruiting-wise, we try to recruit nationally, but it's getting a lot more difficult to get kids off the West Coast. They can play close to home, stay in the Pac-12 and it's great basketball. I think it's definitely changing."
That didn't stop Notre Dame from getting Hannah Huffman, now a senior contributor. But Osahor, a prep standout in Arizona, chose Washington over Virginia Tech.
Until the Final Four returns to the Pacific time zone, where it hasn't been since 1999 and isn't scheduled to be through at least the remainder of this decade, the Pac-12 will always have to take its show on the road if it wants to make any big statements. The Sweet 16 is good. Having a team in Indianapolis would be better. For the two in Lexington, that's an uphill climb.
But for now, air miles or no air miles after a round trip to Maryland and back again to Kentucky, Washington is trying to make itself at home in Big Blue Nation.
"I feel great," Osahor said. "I think we all feel great. No jet lag anywhere. We're good."
It is have game, will travel for the Pac-12.