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Women’s basketball: Conference preview
Junior forward Alanna Smith (above) played internationally for the Australian national team over the summer.(RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Women’s basketball: Conference preview

After finishing second in the Pac-12 during the regular season and winning the conference tournament last year, Stanford women’s basketball enters this new season ranked second in the conference, behind UCLA and tied with Oregon. In a star-studded conference that includes 6 of the best 25 teams in the nation, according to a preseason poll, the Cardinal will once again be in the title race.

For the first time since the 1986-1987, a record 7 Pac-12 teams earned bids to the Big Dance last season, while the Pac-12 had the highest RPI in the nation. Moreover, at least one Pac-12 team has reached the Final Four in nine of the past ten years. This year promises to be similar.

The graduation of Washington’s Kelsey Plum, drafted first overall to the San Antonio Stars in the 2017 WNBA draft, of Stanford’s Erica McCall who went 17th in the same draft to the Indiana fever and of Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese will drastically change the Pac-12 stage this season.

“Last year we saw great players, many of them going to the WNBA, and this year I don’t think there is gonna be a shortage of that either,” senior Kaylee Johnson said. 

UCLA returns All-American candidates Monique Billings and Jordin Canada, giving the Bruins the pre-season edge. Last season, three UCLA players scored over 15 points as the Cardinal dropped a game in L.A. despite having four Cardinal players scoring in double digits. This year, Stanford will need to do better at the free throw line, where it went 13-for-20 against the Bruins last season, and avoid turnovers in decisive moments of the game.

Despite there being preseason rankings, Pac-12 teams have learned to not underestimate each other these past years. Most striking is the perfomance of Oregon State last year, who surprised everyone by winning the conference title during the regular season.

“No one thought Oregon State would do well last year and they did really well,” Cardinal assistant coach Tempie Brown said.

This is the second year UCLA has been picked first, but every team is aware of the competitive nature of the Pac-12: everyone has a shot at the title.

“You know, we don’t put much thought in preseason picks. Nobody remembers who was picked at the beginning,” assistant coach Kate Paye said. “We have some great teams in the conference. UCLA is terrific, they are very talented, they are experienced, Oregon State will be good, ASU will be good, Cal’s very talented, so we really try to focus on ourselves right now.”

Voted second for the first time since 2000, Oregon returns its whole starting lineup, including national freshman of the year Sabrina Ionescu, who led her team to its first ever Elite Eight. While the Cardinal will only face the Ducks once this season, away from the Farm, the contest should be an interesting duel of dynamic backcourts. The matchups between freshman Kiana Williams and Ionescu and junior Marta Sniezek and Ionescu will provide both an offensive and defensive test for the Stanford guards in the final stretch of the regular season.

Another freshman of the year will also return to the conference in Cal — junior center Kristine Anigwe who earned the accolade during the 2015-2016 season. The Bears will thus challenge the Cardinal frontcourt, who will need to step up as it did last year; with a similar matchup against Cal last season, Stanford came away with a pair of wins thanks to high scoring nights from senior guard Brittany McPhee and junior forward Alanna Smith. During senior night at home, McPhee and Smith scored 16 and 17, respectively, while the Australian native rolled over the Bears on the road, scoring a career high 27 points to propel the Cardinal to victory.

Stanford is still a good bit away from its conference opener against UCLA at home on Nov 29. The Cardinal will use its challenging preseason schedule to prepare for the tough road to a deep conference run and maybe even another Pac-12 title.

“Yes and no,” said junior guard Alexa Romano when asked whether the preparation was different this year. “Tara [VanDerveer] is known to be always prepared. That’s Stanford’s strong suit — always preparing more than the other team.”

 

Contact Alexandre Bucquet at bucqueta ‘at’ stanford.edu.