As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 women's college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top conferences. We continue with the Pac-12, where the No.2-ranked Stanford Cardinal are expected to be the top team. But the Arizona Wildcats, UCLA Bruins and Oregon Ducks -- who have to replace Sabrina Ionescu and a whole lot more -- are each ranked in the top 10.
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Pac-12 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Mechelle Voepel: Aari McDonald, Arizona
Graham Hays: Aari McDonald, Arizona
Charlie Creme: Aari McDonald, Arizona
Newcomer of the Year
Voepel: Sedona Prince, Oregon
Hays: Sedona Prince, Oregon
Creme: Sedona Prince, Oregon
Pac-12 2020-21 writer roundtable
Who replaces Ruthy Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally as Oregon's most important players this season?
Creme: Kelly Graves rebuilt the Oregon program from a Pac-12 afterthought into a national power largely because of Hebard, Ionescu and Sabally, who were all drafted in the first round of April's WNBA draft. Now Graves is focused on the next phase with some key transfers and a top recruiting class.
Sedona Prince, a 6-foot-7 forward, is the most important of those transfers. Because she hasn't played in two years it's easy to forget that Prince was a top-10 recruit to Texas in 2018. After missing one season at Texas with a broken leg and then transferring to Eugene, Oregon, Prince steps into Hebard's shoes with a skillset that dominated some Oregon practices last winter. Guard Taylor Mikesell started 66 games at Maryland and is a 41.8% career 3-point shooter. Her shooting next to that of senior Erin Boley and sophomore Jaz Shelley could leave defenses scrambling.
That's an outstanding core, but the most important player on Oregon this season will be whoever replaces Ionescu at point guard. And it's not because they are replacing the NCAA's all-time leader in triple-doubles; that's too much to ask. It's because they are playing point guard on a team with quality size and great shooters who need someone to get them the ball. Junior Taylor Chavez and freshman Te-Hina Paopao are the primary candidates. Chavez has been a steady reserve and last season's Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year has waited for her turn. Paopao was the 11th-rated recruit in the country according to espnW and has drawn some tempered comparisons to Ionescu. Whoever gets those minutes, or if Chavez and Paopao split point guard responsibilities, will be imperative to Oregon's success.
Hays: As Charlie gets at, it's a bit of a trick question because there won't be a like-for-like swap that sees three players account for almost 60 percent of Oregon's points.
What Oregon has to do this season -- as UConn has done so many times over the years and as South Carolina did after A'ja Wilson and Co. and Notre Dame did after Skylar Diggins and Co. -- is show that it has reached a level as a program where it can reconfigure on the fly.
With Prince being compared to Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and getting general positive reviews, Graves makes it sound as if she is the key to that. Not because Prince is going to score 20 points per game but because running things through a versatile post in that mold would be one way to open up all the shooters that the Ducks have. And in Boley, Chavez, Mikesell and Shelley, without even getting to the loaded freshman class, the Ducks are the premier shooting team -- within the Power 5 conferences.
Given the depth of shooting, and again with such a talented group of freshmen also in need of playing time, I might have overestimated Mikesell's impact in the transfer rankings. But I really do think you couldn't find a better match of player and system than the former Maryland guard. Oklahoma's Taylor Robertson was the only player in the nation to average four 3-pointers per game a season ago, and I can see Mikesell joining that club this season.
The other part of the puzzle is among the forwards. Without knowing who it might be, if one (or more) of freshman Angela Dugalic, redshirt sophomore Nyara Sabally or freshman Kylee Watson emerges as an influential presence, that gives the Ducks yet another layer.
Voepel: This is a very important season for Oregon. Because as Graham said, how the program reacts to the loss of a trio of players who were not just really talented but really popular with fans will say a lot about how established the Ducks are as a consistent power.
Oregon has a lot of size, led by Prince, who has a chance to become a focal point of the Ducks' offense. We've been hearing about the younger Sabally sister for a while, but injuries have delayed her college debut. Women's basketball followers are eager to see how both these players do when they're finally on the court.
There can't be a harder act to follow this year in men's or women's college basketball than Ionescu, so the Ducks' guards just can't think about it that way. Shelley is the top returner in assists; she could step forward in her second season.
Are either/both/neither Arizona and UCLA capable of winning the national championship?
Creme: Having a star or at least confident go-to player is essential to winning a national title and both the Wildcats and Bruins have one in Aari McDonald and Michaela Onyenwere, respectively. So check that box. Both teams also have plenty of veteran leadership, a key characteristic for every national champion since a pair of freshmen and sophomores led Maryland to the 2006 title. Those elements should keep Arizona and UCLA in the conversation, especially in a season that could end up being as wide open as ever.
That said, I'm not sure if UCLA has enough scoring punch after Onyenwere and sophomore guard Charisma Osborne, or enough overall depth to beat the nation's top tier teams, the kind they would face in a regional final or the Final Four.
Arizona does, so I think it's possible the Wildcats could win it all. Having options like Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington, Virginia Tech transfer Trinity Baptiste and junior forward Cate Reese -- all double-figure scorers at one point in their careers -- means McDonald doesn't have to be flawless every game. She will have the ability to pick her spots, making her even more dangerous. Arizona should have more than one way to win, making the Wildcats a legitimate threat to the likes of South Carolina, Stanford and UConn.
Hays: I think we all agree that Stanford is clearly the Pac-12's best title hope, with a healthy Haley Jones and the promise of Cameron Brink rejoining Kiana Williams and arguably the deepest roster in the country. That is a given. But timing is everything. Arizona and UCLA are excellent, probably even Final Four-caliber teams devoid of any context. Each is capable of winning the national championship this season because it just looks like it's going to be that sort of season.
The presumptive national player of the year, Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, begins the season with a team ranked outside the AP top 10 and adjusting to a late coaching change. Baylor, UConn and Oregon are all adjusting to significant personnel turnover. To a lesser but still notable degree, so are teams like Louisville and South Carolina. Mississippi State has a new coach.
Everything is in flux this season -- and that's without the specter of the pandemic casting an enormous shadow over scheduling, rosters and rotations.
In this world, an Arizona team that returns the core of McDonald, Reese and senior forward Sam Thomas and adds the assets Charlie mentioned is among the more experienced contenders. Even if none of the returning Wildcats have played an NCAA tournament game.
And while UCLA's depth is concerning, more in terms of an ability to withstand COVID protocols than withstand the Pac-12, Onyenwere is every bit as capable of anchoring a Final Four run as Asia Durr, Angel McCoughtry, Kelsey Plum and other stars in the past couple of decades.
Most years I would say these exact teams aren't quite ready to win a championship. But this very clearly isn't most years.
Voepel: We have to consider that neither of these teams has reached the Final Four in the NCAA era (UCLA won an AIAW title in 1978). So that would be a big step, let alone winning a national championship. As a program, UCLA has been more successful. But if one of them is going to do it this season, the odds are probably more with Arizona.
Arizona is a fresh face, so to speak, at this level, and it's a boost for both women's basketball in general and the Pac-12. It would also be good to see one or more of the league's teams that haven't reached the NCAA tournament the past few years -- such as USC, Colorado or Utah -- get into the Big Dance.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves believes the Pac-12 should permanently adopt a 22-game conference schedule. Would that be a good idea beyond this season?
Creme: I have mixed feelings on this one. I like the idea of a true round-robin schedule in any conference. All schedules are equal and a championship is more fulfilling because of it. Conferences have just gotten too big in some cases to make this kind of intra-league play possible. What Graves is suggesting sounds great on paper, but the number of overall games allowed isn't going to change in a normal season, so more conference games (up from the current 18) means fewer nonconference games.
The Pac-12 largely built itself to the level it is today -- where it is now the equal of the ACC and SEC -- because of the commitment of the league's coaches about six or seven years ago to start playing more competitive, higher-profile games in the nonconference. Previously, only Stanford consistently scheduled those games. Once the other schools began doing it, RPI numbers started to climb and NCAA tournament seeds started to improve. And so did the results. In 2016, three Pac-12 teams reached the Elite Eight. Two of them made the Final Four and neither was Stanford (Oregon State and Washington).
Playing 22 conference games would mean going down to eight nonconference games. That's four fewer opportunities to schedule those marquee games. Sure, Oregon could still play UConn, but could the Ducks also put a team like Syracuse on the schedule and play in an exempt multiple team event like the Paradise Jam that includes another top-10 opponent or two? Probably not. I'm not sure that really is good for the Pac-12 in the long run.
Hays: By all means. Putting aside the practical level for a moment, it's a great idea on a philosophical level. What's the point of competing in a conference if the conference championship is skewed by unequal schedules? Anything that makes the conference season more meaningful sounds like a good idea to me, and winning a championship after playing every team, home and away, would mean a lot.
And while there might be some competitive downsides, as Charlie described, even those might be at least negated by competitive benefits. Familiarity forces adaptation. Playing the same team twice forces coaches and players to be more nimble. Opponents are going to make you confront your weaknesses. That, in turn, makes good teams that much better by March.
While conference strength obviously has a cyclical quality, the Pac-12 has matured to a point of self-sustainability. Of the eight top-50 recruits in the current freshman class who are from Pac-12 territory, six are playing for Pac-12 schools. Of the six such recruits in next year's class, five committed to Pac-12 schools.
Yes, it needs more championships. But the Pac-12 is a superpower. It should embrace that.
Voepel: Fundamentally, it makes the most sense to have a conference title decided by the same scheduling path for every team. And regional rivalries are still one of the big appeals of college basketball. Plus, the "new world" because of COVID-19 is going to linger for a while as schools will look to cut costs for the foreseeable future, travel included.
That said, 22 league games is a lot. And as established as the conference has become from a competitive standpoint, the still-lagging nationwide distribution of the Pac-12 Network -- which carries a lot of those league games -- is a lingering concern. I know it annoys Pac-12 coaches to hear this, but fewer opportunities to play Eastern and Central time zone teams is still just a little bit of a gamble in terms of national visibility. A bigger conference schedule means Pac-12 teams would really have to make the most of their nonconference opportunities.
What's the biggest Bracketology question in the Pac-12?
Creme: Who gets to the Spokane region?
In many ways this is a de facto "who wins the conference" question because in the last 10 NCAA tournaments with a West Coast-based regional, the best team in the Pac-12 has been either the No. 1, 2, or 3 seed in that region. This season it seems even more likely that the winner of the conference will have an inside track to the No. 1 seed in Spokane. A No. 2 seed seems like the worst-case scenario.
Stanford is the Pac-12 favorite, and if the Cardinal have the season most expect, pencil them into that No. 1 seed in Spokane. However, if Arizona wins the conference, not only would the Wildcats be making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005, they would also grab their highest seed ever. UCLA has also never been a No. 1 or 2 seed and is capable of reaching those heights this season.
Last March, the Pac-12 was in position to have five teams among the top-16, which could have allowed a second team from the conference among the top-four seeds in the Portland region. The same scenario could play out this season. My preseason bracket has four teams -- Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA -- in the top-16, with Oregon State at No. 17 overall. If that fifth team got into the top-16 again, it's conceivable that two teams from the Pac-12 could be among the top-four seeds in Spokane.