How the Pac-12's demise impacts women's college basketball

Phoenix Mercury coach Nikki Blue, a California native who played at UCLA and coached at Arizona State, opted for wry humor Saturday when asked about her former conference's fate.

"What happened in the Pac-12?" Blue said, briefly feigning puzzlement at the question. "I'm kidding. It's disappointing. My mom asked me, 'Does this mean they're going to take down a Pac-12 or Pac-10 championship [banner] at UCLA? Are they going to take down your pictures on the wall?' I said, 'No, Mom, I don't think so. I hope not.'"

The past can't be erased, but now everyone is trying to figure out the future. UCLA and USC announced last year their departure for the Big Ten. In the past week-plus, Oregon and Washington joined them in heading to the Big Ten in 2024, while Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will go to the Big 12. The conference fates of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State remain to be seen, as do any subsequent moves involving other leagues, including the ACC and SEC.

Like every other college conference realignment the last three decades, football/television revenue dictated the Pac-12 crumbling, but the impact on women's sports is profound.

While the Pac-12's origins date to 1915, the league didn't officially begin sponsoring women's sports until the 1986-87 school year. Before that, most of the current Pac-12 women's sports teams competed in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association (later renamed the PacWest) or the Northwest Basketball League (later renamed the NorPac).

UCLA, then in the WCAA, was the first of the current Pac-12 schools to win a women's basketball national championship with the AIAW title in 1978. The NCAA began sponsorship of women's athletics in 1981-82, and USC women's hoops won NCAA titles in 1983 and 1984 while still in the WCAA.

Stanford, led by coach Tara VanDerveer since 1985, has by far been the predominant power of Pac-12 women's basketball. The Cardinal have played in the women's Final Four 15 times and have won three NCAA championships, 26 league regular-season titles and 15 conference tournament titles since the event began in 2002.

The league's zenith in women's hoops was in 2021, when Stanford defeated Arizona in an all-Pac-12 national championship game. But the Cardinal and Wildcats aren't going to be conference mates much longer. We look at what the Pac-12's demise means for women's basketball.

What is the impact on the Stanford dynasty?

Voepel: Stanford is the giant of all West Coast women's hoops. (Same in women's volleyball, as the Cardinal have nine NCAA titles.) With its ultra-elite academics and history of success, it seems like Stanford can keep being "Stanford" in women's sports, regardless of conference. What about VanDerveer? She is college women's basketball's winningest coach with 1,186 victories, 1,034 of them at Stanford. She turned 70 in June, and has been Pac-12 women's hoops' greatest ambassador. Does she want to adjust to a new league at this point?

If Stanford goes to the Big Ten, that would be a historical return for her, as VanDerveer played for Indiana in the 1970s and coached Ohio State in the 1980s before beginning her Stanford reign. But travel will be more challenging if Stanford joins a league like the Big Ten, something VanDerveer might not want to deal with at this point in her life after a career in which she's already won everything there is to win.

Philippou: We won't be able to fully predict the impact on Stanford until, presumably, the school lands in a new conference (there'd be a huge difference between, say, the Big Ten, a new-look Pac-12 and the Mountain West). But this moment of conference realignment comes at an already pivotal time for the women's basketball program. VanDerveer is nearing the end of her career. This past season was one to forget for the Cardinal, who bowed out of the Pac-12 tournament -- an event it has historically dominated -- in the semifinals and in March fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament, failing to advance to the regionals for the first time in 15 years. They also had three players enter the transfer portal in the offseason -- most shockingly former No. 1 overall recruit Lauren Betts -- and lost Haley Jones to the WNBA. Not to be lost, the entire athletic department is viewed as being behind on the times when it comes to adapting to the NIL and transfer portal eras.

VanDerveer is still bringing in top prospects, and the program will always boast a strong women's basketball tradition no matter which conference it plays in moving forward. The Cardinal also haven't been ones to shy away from building challenging nonconference schedules. But there remain many unanswered questions for this historic program moving forward, relating to conference realignment and beyond it.

What is next for Cal, Oregon State and Washington State?

Voepel: In the past decade, the Bears (2013) and Beavers (2016) advanced to the Final Four. Oregon State under coach Scott Rueck developed a national presence for the first time and made the rivalry with Oregon into a matchup that got a national spotlight. The Beavers have missed the NCAA tournament the past two years, but Rueck has dramatically improved the program.

Dramatic improvement is also what coach Kamie Ethridge has done at Washington State, which traditionally was one of the worst major conference programs in women's basketball before she took over. She led the Cougars to the NCAA tournament the past three seasons after just one previous appearance (1991) and their first Pac-12 tournament title this year. You hope the progress the Beavers and Cougars have made can continue wherever they land.

Philippou: Cal has languished the last few years although it does have a precedent for success: Under Lindsay Gottlieb, who now runs the show at USC following a stint in the NBA, the Golden Bears played in the 2013 Final Four and were regulars in the NCAA tournament from about 2005 to 2019. They've struggled to find their footing under Charmin Smith, who took over ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.

Without robust payouts that come from a lucrative media deal, the reality for the Pac-12 (er, Pac-4) is that the ensuing steep drop in revenue will hurt all sports, and perhaps especially women's sports and Olympic sports. It wouldn't be shocking if women's basketball programs at the likes of Cal, Oregon State and Washington State face an uphill battle moving forward.

What does it mean for the Big Ten?

Voepel: The Big Ten has just one NCAA champion in women's hoops: Purdue in 1999 (the Maryland's NCAA title came in 2006, when they were still in the ACC). The Big Ten got a big boost this year with Iowa advancing to the NCAA final. Indiana Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1983 and got their first NCAA No. 1 seed. Ohio State upset UConn in the Sweet 16, ending the Huskies' run of Final Four appearances that dated to 2008. For the league as a whole, the Big Ten had its most nationally prominent season in women's hoops.

The Big Ten has been helped by some key coaching hires, big stars (including 2023 national player of the year Caitlin Clark of Iowa), attendance gains and good rivalries. The four newcomers don't seem to add to what the Big Ten already has in women's hoops. Although they also don't subtract, either, except the geographic absurdity of it all.

Washington's women's hoops peak was a 2016 Final Four trip; Oregon's was going to the Final Four in 2019. Those teams were led by Kelsey Plum (Huskies) and Sabrina Ionescu (Ducks), now stars with the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces and New York Liberty. UCLA has pretty much been perpetually good under coach Cori Close, although the Bruins are still looking for their first Final Four of the NCAA era. USC's ultimate glory days were 40 years ago, but Gottlieb in her second season got the Trojans back in the NCAA tournament this year for the first time since 2014.

Philippou: Sure, the Big Ten hasn't won a national title in the millennium, but the conference has still been strong in recent years -- and it now becomes even more stacked with these four West Coast schools. Each athletic department has a track record of success in women's basketball, albeit some more recently than others. Even a program like Washington, which hasn't been as relevant since Mike Neighbors' departed in 2017, made positive gains last season, culminating in a run to the WNIT semifinals. Same goes with the new Big 12, but it'll be fascinating to see how realignment impacts scheduling for conference play and which auto bids the NCAA gives out.

What does it mean for the Big 12?

Voepel: The Big 12 had gotten stale under Baylor's domination, but the tide began to turn when coach Kim Mulkey left for LSU in April 2021. Last season, Texas and Oklahoma tied for the regular-season title and Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament. The Longhorns and Sooners will have one last Big 12 season before going to the SEC, but the entrance of Arizona, Colorado and Utah in particular is a big boost on the women's hoops side to the Big 12.

Colorado was a strong program for many years in the Big Eight/Big 12 under coach Ceal Barry, then struggled after she retired in 2005. Under coach JR Payne, the Buffs have gotten back to national relevancy, making the Sweet 16 this past season for the first time since 2003. Utah also has had a revival under coach Lynne Roberts, reaching the Sweet 16 this year for the first time since 2006 and appearing in the last two Pac-12 tournament finals. And under coach Adia Barnes, Arizona made the aforementioned NCAA final in 2021.

Arizona State is in a new era after Charli Turner Thorne's retirement from the college game, with coach Natasha Adair just completing her first season, But the program has seven Sweet 16 appearances, most recently in 2019. The Big 12 was already going to be quite different with the additions of BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston this season, and Texas' and Oklahoma's impending departures. Although it's sad for the Pac-12, the four schools that are joining the Big 12 give that conference a lot to look forward to.

Philippou: BYU, Cincinnati, UCF and Houston weren't exactly the sexiest additions to the Big 12 from a women's basketball perspective (although BYU and UCF have frequently made NCAA tournaments in recent history). Losing Texas and Oklahoma is a major blow. But adding Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado is a huge boon for a league that's in the midst of an identity shift and is trying to re-establish itself as a women's basketball force (after all, just last season none of the six Big 12 schools to appear in the NCAA tournament advanced to the Sweet 16). Arizona played in the national title game two years ago, while Utah and Colorado have seen a resurgence. Upon their official entrance into the Big 12, those three in particular should be ready to compete for conference titles right away.