Turns out, Bill Walton was right — the Pac-12 really is the best conference in the country.
Of course, he meant it about the men, sure — and he might still be right in that regard — but let’s be clear: that distinction belongs to the women, too.
Monday night, third-seeded Arizona clinched its first women’s Final Four berth with a 66-53 win over fourth-seeded Indiana. By punching its ticket, Arizona becomes the fourth Pac-12 school in the last five years to reach college basketball’s promised land for the first time, joining Oregon (2019) Oregon State (2016) and Washington (2016). California went in 2013.
Stanford, meanwhile, has gone 13 times, including five in a row from 2008-2012. The Cardinal plays for its 14th trip Tuesday when it meets Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes has long been familiar with what Walton calls “The Conference of Champions.” She played at Arizona from 1994-98 and worked as an assistant at Washington from 2011 to 2016 (helping the Huskies to the 2016 Final Four) before heading to the desert to lead her alma mater.
Multiple people told her it was a bad job and she shouldn’t take it. Instead, she trusted her gut and took a chance. Then she surrounded herself with a group of athletes — led by Pac-12 player of the year Aari McDonald — who believed in what she sold. The result is another week in San Antonio and a chance to play for the national championship.
“The Pac-12 is doing awesome!” said Stanford coach Tara VanDeerver after her team’s Sweet 16 win. “I think the West Coast is representing really well. And I’m really excited about how the Pac-12 is doing in both men’s and women’s basketball.”
The last few seasons, the Pac-12 widely was considered the top conference in women’s basketball. Before the postseason was canceled last year, Oregon and triple-double record-setter Sabrina Ionescu were a popular pick to win the 2020 national championship. The conference has built itself into a powerhouse by doing a few things correctly.
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Wildcats coach Adia Barnes embraces guard Aari McDonald after they advanced to the Final Four for the first time in team history. (Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
First, Stanford has hung on to VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer who has set the tone in the conference since the early 1990s. For too long, the Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) was considered “Stanford and everyone else.” But over the last decade other schools started investing in women’s basketball, hiring West Coast coaches who had proven themselves at smaller schools in the West and knew the landscape. Kelly Graves came to Oregon after a successful run at Gonzaga; Oregon State’s Scott Rueck won a Division III national championship at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon; UCLA coach Cori Close is originally from California, played at UC-Santa Barbara and has signed multiple top recruiting classes since moving back to L.A.
“We’re the best conference (in) the country, there’s no doubt about that,” Barnes said after Arizona’s win, with the regional championship net hanging around her neck. “… We have a tremendous amount of good coaches, and so every game is really hard, top to bottom, 1-12. There’s no guaranteed win. I think in other conferences you know you can beat the bottom two or three teams and in our conference, you can’t.
“… I think the coaching is elite and I think that’s what separates us and I think that’s why we have success in the NCAA Tournament.”
Those coaches also have kept the best talent at home. For many years in women’s basketball, the top college prospects from the West almost always went back East — you might recall that Diana Taurasi, the best player in women’s basketball, grew up in Chino, California, before she headed 3,000 miles away to UConn.
But over the last decade, Pac-12 schools have convinced the best West Coast kids to stay home: Kelsey Plum, who played for Washington and became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer, is from San Diego. Ionescu, who shattered the NCAA triple-double record during her time in Eugene and brought many more eyeballs to women’s basketball, is from the Bay Area.
And McDonald, who scored 33 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the Wildcats’ win, is from Fresno, California. She said after Arizona’s big win, “I belong in the Pac-12.” For her, there was no other option.
Much of the success goes back to VanDerveer. She set the bar and then, after losing six consecutive regular-season titles to Oregon State and Oregon, adjusted and reset it: The Cardinal won the regular season and conference tournament titles and is the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they can get past South Carolina, they will be a popular title pick.
Maybe they’ll even wind up going against a familiar foe in Arizona. If that happened, then there’d be no denying Walton, Barnes or anyone else who claims the Pac-12 is the best. It’d just be a fact.
Follow Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell
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