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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's Michelle Plouffe, 15, drives on OSU's Ruth Hamblin during first half play. Utah beat Oregon State 66-40, Sunday, February 10, 2013.
Pac-12 women’s preview: Road to title goes through Stanford
Women’s basketball » Once again, it’s the Cardinal and everybody else
First Published Jan 02 2014 01:28 pm • Last Updated Jan 02 2014 11:34 pm

It starts with Stanford. It ends with Stanford. Everyone else is fighting for the right to finish second.

That’s the story of Pac-12 women’s basketball this season. And really, that’s the story for the Pac-12 women every season. The Cardinal are one of the true stalwarts of college basketball, one of the handful of powers that will challenge UConn for the national title on an annual basis.

At a glance

Pac-12 overview

Predicted order of finish

1. Stanford

2. California

3. Colorado

4. UCLA

5. Washington

6. USC

7. Oregon State

8. Utah

9. Washington State

10. Arizona

11. Arizona State

12. Oregon

Team on the rise

UCLA. The Bruins advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, and nine players from the team that made that run. Atonye Nyingifa is one of the best forwards in the conference. The rest of the frontcourt is big and tough. Don’t be surprised if the Bruins find a way to sneak into the top three.

Team on the decline

Utah. This may not be entirely fair to the Utes, but it applies. With Taryn Wicijowski, the Utes had a legit shot at finishing top six — maybe even top five — and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Without her presence up front, Michelle Plouffe will have to be superwoman every night. If Utah isn’t careful, it can slip out of the top seven and find itself back in the WNIT. It’s almost cruel how big Wicijowski’s knee injury is to the overall fortunes of this team.

MVP

Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike may not only be the MVP of the Pac-12, she could be MVP of the country. Period. You look at her and it seems like she’s been playing college basketball for at least 10 years. But that’s a testament to how good she is. She’s one of the best power forwards in the country, but has rounded her game out to where she’s now comfortable making plays away from the basket. She will be a top five selection in the upcoming WNBA draft, and she’s simply one of the premier players in college basketball.

Biggest surprise

How good Washington has gotten in a short time under Mike Neighbors. Before he took the reigns, the Huskies hadn’t experienced a 20-win season since 1994. Now, they’ve done it in two consecutive seasons. Washington is deep and experienced. Jazmine Davis was the freshman of the year in 2012 and first team all-conference last season. Whenever you have a guard who can score like she can, you have a chance.

Utah at UCLA

Friday, 7 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

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The numbers are staggering. Stanford has won 30 games in six consecutive seasons. The Cardinal have been to the Final Four in five of the past six years. Chiney Ogwumike is one of the top five players in the country. Tara VanDerveer is one of the coaching icons of the profession. With 10 players returning from last season, don’t expect the Stanford train to roll off the track any time soon.

So where does that leave the rest of the conference? More importantly, where does that leave Utah? The Utes are looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since Michelle Plouffe’s freshman season.

And the conference is unique in its own right. Because of Stanford’s dominance it’s definitely top-heavy. But it’s a league that has some depth and talent as well.

"There is no such thing as a bad team in this conference and that’s what our team will have to be ready for," Utah coach Anthony Levrets said. "It’s going to be a league that we’re going to have to take every game one at a time. Every game will be different from the next. But we’re ready. We’re excited, and we have an idea of what’s coming."

California is probably the one team that can challenge the Cardinal on a consistent basis. Colorado is quick in the backcourt, and talented up front. Washington, UCLA and USC are all getting better as programs. Utah has an All-American candidate in Plouffe and an emerging star in freshman Emily Potter, who has taken up some of the inside scoring slack vacated by Taryn Wicijowski’s ACL injury.

But like the Utah men, the women are going to face a grind. The depth of the conference is at its best in recent seasons, with as many as seven teams truly having hopes of going to the NCAA Tournament. That means the Utes will have to play great basketball for 18 games just to survive. Utah lost a lot of close contests last season. Will Levrets and his team have what it takes to be consistent in 2014?

tjones@sltrib.com

on twitter: @tjonessltrib


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