With the exception of a two-game stretch late in the regular season, Oregon has been the cream of the crop in a deep and talented Pac-12 Conference again this season.
The Ducks went 16-2 and claimed a second straight outright regular-season title on Sunday. Now the Ducks, ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press poll and the No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA women’s basketball selection committee’s eyes entering the week, are looking to make it back-to-back Pac-12 tourney titles as well.
And position themselves for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are announced on March 18.
Action gets underway on Thursday in Las Vegas — where it will be held the next two seasons as KeyArena in Seattle undergoes renovation.
The run to another title certainly doesn’t appear to be an easy one.
“I think the tournament is, quote, more open than maybe it has been in years past,” said legendary Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has led her Cardinal to the last two title games, winning it in 2017 and falling to Oregon last season. “I don’t know that any game would be a, quote, upset. Everyone is very capable. Oregon obviously having won the regular season is the favorite but I think everyone is capable. It should lend itself to some great games.”
Oregon coach Kelly Graves said he values winning the regular-season title more than a tournament title because of 18-game grind, but he also knows the Ducks can’t take the tournament for granted if they want to position themselves as best as possible for the NCAA tournament.
“We’re still playing for something much bigger so yeah the Pac-12 tournament becomes very important,” said Graves, the conference's coach of the year this season. “… Our players know there’s a lot more to play for.”
Oregon (27-3) will face either No. 8 seed Arizona or No. 9 seed USC in the quarterfinals at 2 p.m. on Friday. The Wildcats (17-12, 7-11) and Trojans (17-12, 7-11) meet at 2 p.m. Thursday with Arizona winning the lone regular-season matchup.
The other half of the bracket has No. 5 Arizona State (19-9, 10-7) taking on No. 12 Colorado (12-17, 2-16) at 11:30 a.m. Thursday with the winner playing No. 4 seed UCLA (19-11, 12-6) at the same time on Friday.
The Bruins are one of the hottest teams in the conference, having won 10 of 12, including an upset over Oregon in Eugene in a game they trailed by 22 in the first half.
Arizona State has also played Oregon close twice, including holding a lead in the fourth quarter in Sunday’s regular-season finale. And the Sun Devils swept Oregon State.
“I think we’re built to have a good run,” ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “We have good depth and great experience. I think we’re coming off a good weekend playing Sun Devil basketball.”
In the other side of the bracket, Stanford is the No. 2 seed and Oregon State the No. 3 seed. Both will have byes into the quarterfinals.
Stanford (25-4, 15-3) will face the winner of Thursday’s 6 p.m. first-round matchup of No. 7 California (18-11, 9-9) and No. 10 Washington State (9-20, 4-14). The Golden Bears handed Stanford one of it’s three conference losses on a buzzer-beater.
No. 6 Utah (20-9, 9-9) and No. 11 Washington (9-20, 2-15) square off in the 8:30 p.m. game Thursday with the winner getting Oregon State (24-6, 14-4) at the same time on Friday.
Utah lost two two-point games to Arizona State and two more close games to USC while playing both Oregon (through three quarters) and Oregon State tough in road losses.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, whether you come in first or last or anywhere in between, it’s just kind of new life,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “We only have seven kids right now that and that isn’t changing. I’m looking forward to just kind of some new life and enthusiasm.”
The Beavers are a top three seed for the sixth straight season. Oregon State lost in the quarterfinals in two of the last three seasons and know they need to approach Friday’s game with a sense of urgency and will get everyone’s best shot as other teams are jockeying for postseason opportunities.
“We’re excited for the next step, it’s an opportunity for us to win a Pac-12 title so lots at stake,” said junior Mikayla Pivec. “Last year we lost to Arizona State and you watch everyone else play for so long, you sit out two weeks until the NCAA tournament. … This year we want to have an extended stay in Vegas.”
The semifinals are at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday with the championship game set for 5 p.m. Sunday.
All games will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks with the title game airing on ESPN2.