Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer's Stanford women's basketball team has been picked to win a 15th consecutive Pac-12 Conference regular-season championship.
A poll of the league coaches gave the Cardinal 116 points and seven first-place votes, the Pac-12 announced during its media day Wednesday. Bay Area rival Cal was chosen to finish in second place.
“Stanford is Stanford, they just kind of reload with more All-Americans,” said first-year Oregon coach Kelly Graves, who came to Eugene from a successful run at Gonzaga. “We've played them every single year for the last six to eight years. I always thought we had the two best programs on the West Coast and should have been playing. They show you everything you're weak at, they expose you for what you aren't.”
Despite losing Pac-12 Player of the Year and All-American Chiney Ogwumike to the WNBA, VanDerveer welcomes back 12 letterwinners from last season, when the Cardinal reached the Final Four for the sixth time in seven years.
With the Ogwumike sisters gone for the Cardinal, Washington coach Mike Neighbors figures the team might be overlooked nationally and surprise some people. Though the Cardinal will get a big opportunity on the national stage when they host two-time defending champion Connecticut on Nov. 17 at Maples Pavilion. Stanford also plays Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee in another daunting preseason schedule.
“They can hit you with a lot of different weapons,” Neighbors said. “They're still the champs until somebody knocks them off.”
Cal has been to the postseason in nine straight seasons, including the program's first Final Four berth in 2013 under coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
Following the Golden Bears in the preseason poll are Oregon State, UCLA, Washington, USC, Arizona State, Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. UCLA, under fourth-year coach Cori Close, advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and has the top recruiting class in the country.
Graves has made the jump from the dominant team in the West Coast Conference after 13 years at national power Gonzaga to the well-funded and supported Ducks program with a chance to make an immediate impact in the Pac-12.
“I don't care what anybody thinks. I know there are expectations,” Graves said. “Nobody puts higher expectations on a team than I do.”
Oregon State, looking to build off its first NCAA berth last spring since 1996, will play at Tennessee on Dec. 28 as its final tuneup before Pac-12 play begins.
“We're going into what I believe is the best conference in the country after that,” Beavers coach Scott Rueck said. “Here's another chance to test ourselves against the nation's elite to see where we stack up.”
Neighbors figures the Pac-12 winner won't go through the conference unscathed.
“There's no question the league's deeper than it has been in the last 10 years,” Neighbors said. “Our talent, coaching, opportunity is at an exciting time. The league is wide open … and with more potential than it's ever had in the last decade.”