Women's basketball: Can UCLA, Oregon build on NCAA tournament success?
The Pac-12 women's basketball coaches' poll was announced last week and the top three teams – UCLA, Oregon, Stanford – were separated by just seven points, which means another exciting season of hoops should be in store for players, coaches and fans out West.
Four teams battled for the regular-season title last season while the rest of the conference finished with a .500 record or worse in Pac-12 play. If preseason prognosticators are correct, the states of California and Oregon will have the best teams in the conference for the 2017-18 campaign.
Best player: Kristine Anigwe, Cal
In an era of basketball that emphasizes spreading the floor with outside shooting, Cal forward/center Kristine Anigwe is a throwback to traditional "bigs." She's an interior force who finished second in the conference last season in scoring (21.7 ppg), third in rebounding (9.3 rpg), second in field goal percentage (56.6 percent) and second in blocks (2.12 bpg).
Anigwe has been impressive from the start of her college career – she was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2016 – and only got better, earning AP All-American Honorable Mention honors in 2017. She's a two-way presence who's among the best defenders in the conference while also displaying a polished offensive game that allows her to be a threat to score 30 on any given night. The 6-4 junior tied the Pac-12 single-game scoring record with 50 points on an incredibly efficient 19-of-23 shooting in just 24 minutes against Sacramento State last December, before Washington's Kelsey Plum broke the record later in the season.
Best team: UCLA
The Bruins return their top three scorers from last season, including a pair of All-Pac-12 honoreers in senior guard Jordin Canada (17.8 ppg, 7.1 apg) and senior forward Monique Billings (16.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg). UCLA finished fourth in the conference with a 13-5 record in conference play (25-9 overall) in 2016-17. For the first time in program history, the Bruins advanced to the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years.
With eight players who are junior or seniors, UCLA has a veteran-laden squad that also welcomes a trio of highly regard freshmen – forward Michaela Onyenwere, guard Chantel Horvat and wing Kayla Owens.
Sleeper team: Oregon
The Ducks were one of seven Pac-12 teams to finish with a below-.500 record in conference play as their 8-10 mark was good for sixth place. However, Oregon hit its stride late in the season, tearing through the Bridgeport Regional en route to an Elite Eight appearance.
Here's some good action from practice last wk out of a zipper cut w/weakside screening movement. Freshman Satou w/a strong finish at the rim pic.twitter.com/JeN3yRUYNl— Kelly Graves (@GoDucksKG) October 16, 2017
All five starters, most notably reigning Freshman of the Year Sabrina Ionescu, return from last season. Ionescu, a 5-10 guard, averaged 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game as a freshman. Another sophomore, Ruthy Hebard, will look to build on her team-leading 14.9-point and 8.5-rebound per game averages.
Oregon also adds 6-4 freshman wing Satou Sabally into the mix this season.
Best freshman: Michaela Onyenwere, UCLA
The 2017 McDonald's All-American selection was a three-time Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year. Now, Onyenwere will continue her basketball career three states west, where she'll suit up for Pac-12 favorite UCLA.
Listed as a forward on the Bruins' roster, she can create mismatches by utilizing her expanding perimeter game. Her 5-11 frame also allows her to be a factor on the glass and an interior scorer through contact. She's a tremendous athlete who finished in the top five at the state level in multiple track and field events in high school without a lot of experience in the sport.
Andy Wittry has written for SI.com, Sporting News, the Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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