Who will still be playing?
By Maureen Mullen, Special to CNNSI.com
What does March Madness bring to the Pac-10 conference? A wave of upsets, a string of questions, and a lot of inconsistent ball clubs. In short, not much is new, just more is on the line for the West Coast women warriors.
As seen this weekend, the end of the season doesn't mean a shortage of surprises. With a week remaining in conference play, nobody has come much closer to settling the perennial question of who is the Pac-10's best team. And a harder question yet which squads will still be playing after the post-season selection committees try to find some sort of order in the mumble jumble of records this year's conference race has produced?
Only three teams remain mathematically capable of taking the conference crown: Washington, Arizona State and Stanford. While the Sun Devils appeared to have a decent lock on the top spot, their two losses up at Oregon and Oregon State this weekend look to place them in the second place slot.
The Huskies are the overwhelming favorite for the title, a game ahead of Arizona State, and only games against USC and UCLA remaining, there should be nothing preventing Washington from securing its first-ever Pac-10 crown. However, nothing can be for certain in this year's race. The Women of Troy seemed to have finally found their game in the closing weeks of the season, forcing both Stanford and California to surrender to their forces on each teams home court. While the Bruins, are record-wise the conference's worst team Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer perhaps said it best in a Saturday press conference, "For the worst team, their all that bad," declared the Cardinal coach after her team escaped with a 83-69 win on Saturday.
Which brings us to the question of the Cardinal. They certainly have the most daunting task ahead of them this weekend, just to have any shot at the conference title. Not only does Stanford need to beat both the Sun Devils and the Wildcats on the road, they also better be cheering mighty hard for the UCLA schools to prevail over Washington. In most conferences such an occurrence would barely even be speculated, however with Stanford's heralded history and the preponderance of upsets this season, one can't rule it out.
The Pac-10 conference is perhaps in its most precarious position ever as it heads into selection time. With the constant beating up that has occurred by all teams within the conference nobody envies the job of the selection committee in deciding who will still be around when the conference season terminates.
Two teams that will almost definitely appear in some bracket of the NCAA tournament are Arizona State and Washington. Both teams currently boost 19 overall wins and have been flitting on the fringes of the top 25 throughout the past month of play. If Washington can post two big wins on the road this weekend, the Huskies might even find themselves hosting some first round action.
However while the Huskies and the Sun Devils have all but secured a spot, several other conference teams are on the bubble. Stanford, which hasn't missed receiving a bid to the NCAA tournament in 14 years, stands in jeopardy this season. The Cardinal faced a tough schedule in the early season, and while their only big win was over current No. 14 Utah, Stanford scored close losses to top-10 teams Tennessee and Oklahoma. One win this weekend will the give the Cardinal a decent shot, while two wins will almost guarantee their name will be called on selection Sunday. If the Cardinal falls to both Arizona and Arizona State this weekend they could be in trouble.
The Wildcats also have a huge weekend ahead of them, a strong showing in early games have earned Arizona 18 wins with two games remaining, however a current 8-8 record in conference play, leads one to wonder if they will get a bid. Wins this weekend down at the McKale Center are crucial to show the NCAA selection committee that they are for real.
And then there's Oregon. The Ducks were the only team on the bubble this weekend that did a great job boosting their chances. The two tough wins over the Arizona schools will aid their cause, as will some strong early season wins. However, their poor showing in the Pac-10 leaves questions for the squad. A win this weekend is essential for NCAA hopes, but even then, the Ducks could end up in the WNIT.
Oregon State and California could also find themselves in the WNIT if they finish out strong. The Beavers have 16 wins, including several early season victories, which should give them some pull with the committee. The Golden Bears are an outside shot, but they have played well in the Pac-10, a strong win this weekend might be all they need.
Player of the year
While team chemistry can go a long way, sometimes all that a squad needs is that one extra special player to set them over the top. So as the team records are being decided so will the conference individual honors, the most exclusive: conference player of the year.
While this contest could be as hotly contested as the Pac-10 race, the title comes down to three key seniors: Arizona's Reshea Bristol, Washington's Megan Franza and Oregon's Angelina Wolvert, with Oregon State junior Felicia Ragland and UCLA junior Michelle Greco holding an outside shot.
Bristol has captained the Wildcat squad all season, and is second in the team in points while leading the conference in assists. A strong defensive player, Bristol's experience has given even the best Pac-10 players trouble this year.
Franza has been a prolific scorer throughout her four years at Washington, and hasn't backed down this season. She is a go-to guard that has gotten the Huskies out of more than a couple close games with a win. An excellent player on a good team, Franza should for nothing else be honored for making the most of her final season.
Wolvert's presence was no better demonstrated than when she was forced to sit out midway through the conference season. The tough Duck squad, all of sudden looked like it had lost its wings, without her strong athletic presence inside. Wolvert has shown she is capable of excelling against any player in the conference and has been a consistent offensive and defensive threat all season.
While nobody will doubt the ability Ragland and Greco have at creating their own shots and the value they have given to their struggling teams, the pair of juniors will probably be duking it out more for the scoring title than player of the year honors. Such a huge part of being a big-time player is winning those big-time games, and both UCLA and Oregon State have struggled to do that all season.
Maureen Mullen is a reporter for The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper of Stanford University.