With the Pac-10 regular season and tournament over and done, but the NCAA selection show still a few long days away, we face a strange in-between time of thumb twiddling and amateur bracket building. Rather than getting hung up on the flaws of the RPI or the nuances of the S curve, it might be a good time to look back and assess Pac-10 results against expectations. Or to put it more bluntly, who hit and who missed in the conference in 2006-07. For several teams, struggle was the name of the game, as many key performers were sidelined. Even those at the top were not immune. What follows is a team-by-team analysis, starting from the bottom. Like mountain climbers or a lazy sloth eyeing a tasty leaf, we methodically work our way up.
Washington State was last, or as we might more optimistically call it, 10th. Those who are aware that the Big 10 has 11 teams might fall for this and give WSU a little extra credit (Insert Spinal Tap-inspired "It goes to eleven" joke here.) In this case a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but if you are last (excuse me, 10th), you take whatever credit you can muster. WSU has been last more than they have been other than last in recent years. No disasters barred their way; they were simply not good enough to do better. The Cougars did poorly out of conference even with a weak schedule and went on to win one game in the Pac-10, their first against Oregon State. Yes, they finished with 17 straight regular season losses, and then added another in the tournament. They did play many young players such as Pac-10 All-Freshman Team Honorable Mention pick Marisa Stotler, but to say things are looking up for the future might be pushing it, given the nature of the young talent throughout the rest of the league. Sadly, their ace rebounder, senior Kate Benz, fought back problems throughout the season. She played but was never a force. WSU was a definite miss, but they did live down to expectations, so in that regard I guess you might call it a backward hit. Congratulations, you did as badly as we all thought! Cruel perhaps, but true.
Arizona finished 4-14 in the regular season, a mark that must have been a disappointment given that they had fought admirably during a very difficult season in 2005-06 and added several players (frosh, JUCOs and injury returnees) who were expected to help. UA played a fairly tough out-of-conference schedule, and while they did not win many, they did appear to lay the groundwork for a better Pac-10 result than they got. The return from injury of F/C Shannon Hobson plus the addition of the 6'6" and 6'7" Bofia twins should have helped them where they hurt - in the post - but they remained a perimeter-oriented team, even though not one player shot over 30% from three-point range. That was not a recipe for success. The Wildcats competed well, which made many of their losses fairly close, but wins were tough to find even in a down Pac-10. They did better in the second half of the conference schedule and did win their 8/9 Pac-10 Tournament opener, but I'd have to call this one a miss.
Oregon State also finished the regular season at 4-14, but there was a youthful spring in their step, which made it a cheerier 4-14 than Arizona's, even though they lost to UA in the Pac-10 Tournament. They played hard and kept many of their losses close. They executed well. Even though the Beavers were seriously vertically challenged, they hung well against much bigger teams. Not everything was wonderful, however. Their out-of-conference schedule was truly horrible. There is no excuse for a Pac-10 team to be scheduling Birmingham Southern, Southern Utah, Cal Poly, Montana State, etc. What is worse, they lost some of those games! Between OSU and WSU, they dragged down the conference RPI several notches, which hurt conference teams trying to build their RPI for the NCAA selections. OSU's season was not unsuccessful considering how young they were and how well they competed, especially towards the end. Senior Casey Nash was the leading scorer in the conference, but freshmen like Judie Lomax, who shot over 60% and rebounded well for her size, made up the bulk of the roster. Can't say this is a hit, but after playing down to a mediocre out-of-conference schedule, the young team generally acquitted itself well in Pac-10 play, and the arrow should be up for the future.
UCLA faced only moderate expectations after losing Nikki Blue and Lisa Willis to the WNBA. They failed to meet even those. Seventh in the conference for a team that featured almost certain future WNBA firstround pick Noelle Quinn, Honorable Mention All Pac-10 selection Lindsey Pluimer, and some decent young talent was not where most expected the Bruins to be. Few picked them for the top, but most expected more competitiveness than they produced. The injury woes of many of their competitors should have cracked the door open for a UCLA team that managed to stay relatively healthy, but they could not take advantage. The Bruins finished below .500 overall and in the conference (7-11 regular season and 8-12 after one tourney win). Quinn put up her usual fine numbers; Pluimer made a good second banana; but UCLA did not get much help from their frosh and were never much of a threat to move into the top half of the conference. They were never even much of a threat to bother sixth-place Oregon. There was some talk that the decrease in star power would be countered by better chemistry and energy, but the opposite happened: one lonely star, not much energy and not much inspired basketball. This is a definite miss, and a sad one at that, as Quinn is a wonderful player who deserved better than a losing senior season.
Oregon did not win more than they lost, going 8-10, but they did improve from a 2-7 first half to a 6-3 second half, so this veteran squad can feel pretty good about how they closed out their careers. They avoided the dreaded Friday game at the Pac-10 Tournament and did slightly better than most predicted. UO found solid play from a bevy of seniors (leading scorer Eleanor Haring, Carolyn Ganes, Jessie Shetters, Cicely Oaks and Kaela Chapdelaine), however all that experience did not take them to the top half of the conference. With that experienced group graduating, the Ducks will lose a lot next season, so they better enjoy missing that Friday tournament play-in game while they can. When you play that much experience and the best you can do is sixth, that is the very definition of spinning your wheels. It's not really a hit and it's not really a miss. How about one thumb up for the improved second half?
USC struggled to a 10-8 conference record and a 16-12 overall mark before going 1-1 in the Pac-10 Tournament. Now they must sweat out the NCAA selections with a 17-13 overall record. If we call what they faced an injury bug, it would have to be a swarm of killer bees. The Women of Troy lost numerous players for long stretches. Three potentially important contributors had to sit out the year (super recruit Jacki Gemelos, point guard Camille LeNoir and sharpshooter Brynn Cameron). Though not the roster they had envisioned, USC's cupboard was not barren. They still had Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate and All-Conference selection Eshaya Murphy, solid posts Chloe Kerr and Nadia Parker, and several experienced regulars from last year's NCAA worthy team. Point guard Jamie Hagiya was shaky early but was doing a credible job by year's end. It is hard to say such a wounded team underachieved, but neither did they overachieve given the players who did return. Compared to last season, they were missing only graduated starter Megan Gnekow and injured point guard Camille LeNoir for most of the Pac-10 schedule. Losing your point guard hurts, but other Pac-10 teams faced the same situation. Even with the injuries (and they get much sympathy for what they endured), USC's season was somewhat disappointing. They are hosting early round NCAA games at the Galen Center, but even with a mild upset of Washington in Pac-10 Tournament play, it is not a given that they will get to play. Closing the season desperate for a quality win (or any win to hit a total the NCAA selectors could accept), they could not beat a Stanford team minus Candice Wiggins and its top two point guards. Even with many injured players back in the fold, they went 5-4 in the last half of the conference season, finishing 2-4 with the NCAAs on the line. As much as it would feel good to call USC a hit, I have to call it a near miss (but I would send a sympathy card). Fingers are still crossed for an NCAA bid, which would swing the miss to tentative hit.
Washington had big plans coming into the 2006-07 season. Coach June Daugherty was predicting a challenge for the conference title and a deep NCAA run for a UW team led by seven seniors, including All Pac-10 pick Cameo Hicks. At season's end, seven out of their top eight scorers were upperclassmen, mostly seniors. They were experienced and deep. They were excited about a non-conference schedule that included Ohio State, Purdue, and Texas A&M. Surprisingly, the Huskies did not get out of the gate well. They did start to play better as the Pac-10 season approached and began conference play with five straight wins and a very close loss at ASU. Just as they were beginning to play like a team that could challenge for the conference crown (or so it seemed… cue ominous music), they inexplicably were blown out at home by Stanford and Cal in quick succession to lowlight a horrible stretch where they lost six of seven games. UW recovered to close the regular season with a 5-1 run that included a win at Cal, but the yo-yo season was unbecoming such a seasoned club. UW's fourth-place finish at 11-7 felt even worse than it was since it included some very ugly losses where they were never in the game. To top it off, the Huskies lost their only Pac-10 Tournament game to USC in a mild 4/5 upset. Where was the heart? Where was the fight? There were even rumors that Coach Daugherty's job was on the line. What to make of UW in 2006-07? They seemed to lose focus and play well below their best way too often, the opposite of what a veteran team usually does. They were not unsuccessful, but given their high aspirations, they were most definitely a big miss on the whole. Occasionally you might even call them a big mess.
California was the team who did the most with the least, if you consider only the number of players who made contributions. They overcame an early-season injury to star guard Alexis Gray-Lawson and managed to finish third in the Pac-10 at 12-6 despite generally only playing six players significant minutes in any given game. It was do or die for the starters. Mostly it was do, even if at times it was not pretty while their all-frosh backcourt of Lauren Greif and Natasha Vital learned on the job, sometimes painfully. Fortunately Cal had two of the best posts in the conference in Pac-10 Player of the Year Devanei Hampton and All-Conference selection Ashley Walker. Their excellence covered up the flaws in the inexperienced backcourt, and the young guards had plenty of minutes to get the hang of things. Coach Joanne Boyle was Pac-10 Coach of the Year and probably had sprained fingers from crossing them hoping for no injuries or foul trouble for her starters. Cal was a most definite hit. They hung around the Top 25 rankings for most of the season. Even a hiccup like a late loss by 20 at Oregon could not dampen the enthusiasm from a team that did about as well as they could have hoped. They played ASU tough in the conference tournament semifinals. An NCAA bid awaits. Cal was certainly a conference success story this season.
Arizona State continued to be a cut above almost every team in the conference. They set a school record with 28 wins and counting. They were a strong second in both the regular season and the tournament. They lost only four games all year and only thrice in conference. The only problem was that the three losses were all to regular season and tourney champ Stanford. Visions of cardinal red and a grinning Candice Wiggins must torment their dreams. Maybe they are even chased by the latest incarnation of The Tree in their nightmares. Better leave on that nightlight, because the reality was stark. Even that school record number of wins cannot erase the pain of losing three times to the one team ASU most wanted to beat. Second is not where ASU wanted to be. It is not where they thought they would be. Sadly for them, the infamous gap between ASU and Stanford that Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne kept insisting had shrunk, yawned wide and swallowed ASU whole. There is nothing for them to do but stand at the bottom, frown and wait until next year. Like the announcements in the London Underground say as you board the train, "Mind the gap." Fortunately they will have the NCAAs to occupy them. All in all, it was a very successful year for ASU, so they are a definite hit, but when we consider their aspirations, it was surely a miss. What should the overall verdict be? Well it has to be a hit, but also a slap down from above. Let's just call it a blocked shot.
Stanford continued with their stranglehold on the regular season conference crown and added a well-fought tournament title, but it was not such a simple feat. Seemingly continuous injury worries over Candice Wiggins (college student by day, super hero by night) and a point guard merry-go-round made the season a challenge. Tough to be wonderful when Wonder Woman is on the bench, but Stanford was up to the challenge. They did not lose a game she missed. The point guard carousel did not derail the train either, as freshman JJ Hones stepped in beautifully for last season's injured starter, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, and fellow frosh Melanie Murphy did a fine job picking up the pieces after Hones went out for the season with a knee injury. The Three Bigs - Brooke Smith, Kristen Newlin and Jayne Appel - came up big, or better yet make that huge. Medium-sized Jillian Harmon always managed to make the timely play. Human pogo stick Cissy Pierce found her niche and contributed. It may not have been as stress free as a 20-1 total conference mark would indicate, but when it was less than lovely, it was gritty and great. After starting the season with a nasty November, Stanford's conference performance and dominance over second-place rival ASU was a very big hit.
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