Stanford overwhelming favorite in Pac-12 women’s hoops race

FILE - Stanford's Haley Jones grabs a rebound during the second half of a college basketball game against UConn in the semifinal round of the Women's Final Four NCAA Friday, April 1, 2022, in Minneapolis.  Jones was named to the women's Associated Press preseason All-America team, Tuesday, Oct.  25, 2022.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

FILE – Stanford’s Haley Jones grabs a rebound during the second half of a college basketball game against UConn in the semifinal round of the Women’s Final Four NCAA Friday, April 1, 2022, in Minneapolis. Jones was named to the women’s Associated Press preseason All-America team, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

AP

Even though there is a youth movement in the Pac-12 Conference, Haley Jones, Cameron Brink and Stanford continue to stand tall as the powerhouse program.

The Cardinal are looking to get to the Final Four for the third straight season and win their second national title in three years after falling short against UConn in last season’s semifinals.

Jones, the conference player of the year last season, said the loss to the Huskies was difficult, but they are getting motivation from it.

“I think losses are a part of the game, so you have to live and learn with it. There’s still more to be played this upcoming year,” Jones said.

Stanford, ranked second in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, will make national television appearances against defending national champion South Carolina on Nov. 20 and Dec. 18 against Tennessee.

no. 19 Arizona — which played Stanford for the national title two years ago — features three fifth-year seniors but is also bolstered by an incoming group of transfers and freshmen. no. 20 Oregon, which won three straight regular-season conference titles from 2018-20, has one of the country’s top backcourts.

When it comes to youth, there will be plenty of it this season. The conference has 11 players named McDonald’s All-Americans last season, and five of the top eight recruiting classes. UCLA had the nation’s consensus top class, followed by Oregon and Oregon State.

Stanford has what many rates as the nation’s top freshman in Lauren Betts.

TEAM TO BEAT

Stanford has plenty of depth, but the clear leaders are Jones and Brink. Jones is on the AP’s preseason All-America team after averaging 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds last season. She will be the Cardinal’s primary point guard after the graduations of Anna Wilson and Lacie Hull.

Brink, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, has worked on her perimeter shooting during the offseason. Coach Tara VanDerveer said the junior has been playing small forward during preseason practices.

“I think Cam’s versatility, Haley’s versatility, they’re practicing with a sense of urgency,” VanDerveer said. “Cam just didn’t lay on the beach in Hawaii all summer. She worked hard with Pau Gasol. I think she expanded her game.

“Haley has always been an extremely versatile player, but she’s put hours and hours into her game in the gym. She knows, too, that she wants to have a great senior year, but she has a great future.”

INTERESTING MIX

Arizona still has plenty of players from the 2021 team that made the national title game against Stanford, but the Wildcats also added a pair of transfers to attempt another deep tournament run.

The Wildcats, picked to finish third by the coaches, return fifth-year seniors Cate Reese and Shaina Pellington, who combined to average 25.7 points last season but also added Jade Loville from Arizona State and Oklahoma State’s Lauren Fields. Loville was second in the conference in scoring last season at 16.6 points per game.

“We have players that can play on both ends of the floor, so I think the areas that we improved this year is adding some players that can play our type of defense and that can score the ball well,” coach Adia Barnes said.

NOT DUCKING IT

Oregon, picked second by the coaches, again has one of the top backcourts in the country with all-conference guards Endyia Rogers and Te-Hina Paopao. The Ducks’ most intriguing player is Sedona Prince. The redshirt senior, whose social media posts about the difference in athlete conditions between the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments spurred change, averaged 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds last season. Coach Kelly Graves thinks no one has seen Prince’s best yet.

“She’s a difference maker. She truly is. It changes who we are and how we can play when we can play through her,” Graves said. “She She’s always played alongside a high-level pro, as well. So now it’s kind of her time to shine.”

FUTURE IS NOW

UCLA has one of the conference’s top guards in Charisma Osbourne, and the nation’s top recruiting class. Kiki Rice is the nation’s second-ranked recruit and will likely join Osbourne in the backcourt.

The Bruins, picked fourth by the coaches, have struggled with depth the last two seasons and didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season. Coach Cori Close said they remain a work in progress but the on-court chemistry will develop in time.

KEEP AN EYE ON…..

Utah, Colorado and Washington State, which made the NCAA Tournament last season after long droughts. The Utes received VanDerveer’s vote for the conference title in the preseason poll since coaches can not select their own teams.

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter .com/AP_Top25

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