The Bay Area women's basketball trip has become all the more daunting for the rest of the league with the two top teams in the Pac-12 right here: Stanford and Cal.
A pair of national powers, too.
“I like that,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “You have to prepare for both teams. We love the competition in our conference.”
Stanford was picked by the Pac-12 coaches to win the conference title again this season behind reigning Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike. And Cal says not to rule the Golden Bears out.
“It's always an honor to be considered the top team in the Pac-12, but those are just higher expectations for us,” Ogwumike said Thursday. “We really enjoy having the competition, especially with Cal. There are so many teams with depth this year. The Pac-12 is the conference to beat. The Bay Area is really becoming the heart of women's basketball.”
VanDerveer's Cardinal received a maximum 121 points and 11 first-place votes ahead of Pac-12 media day. Cal is picked to finish second after the Golden Bears reached their first Final Four in program history last season in coach Lindsay Gottlieb's second year.
“It's funny, I thought the two of them were our standard, though UCLA came along and helped out the Pac-12,” Oregon coach Paul Westhead said. “Our last trip down to the Cal-Stanford swing, I said that Stanford still is the team, Stanford's the team that needs to be reckoned with, and the next thing I know Cal moved ahead. It's like a 1-2 punch down here.”
Stanford missed reaching a sixth straight Final Four in VanDerveer's 27th season at Stanford and 34th overall in Division I. The Cardinal lost in the NCAA tournament's Spokane Regional semifinals, 61-59 to Georgia, to finish 33-3.
“It is an impressive streak in a power conference, for sure. I think there's a lot of people that can maybe beat Stanford on a one-game basis, but to win the title two or three people have to do that,” said first-year Washington coach Mike Neighbors. “That's where their dominance is so impressive. They may lose a game here, they may catch a bad break there, they may get in some foul trouble. I think there's a handful of teams that if you catch them on a night when they don't play to their normal level, their normal standard, there's about four, five teams, maybe six, that could beat them.”
The Cardinal — coming off a foreign tour to Italy this summer — had their nation-best 82-game winning streak at home snapped in a lopsided 61-35 rout by Connecticut on Dec. 29, then they lost another in front of the spirited Maples Pavilion crowd to rival Cal to end an 81-game unbeaten run against conference opponents. Cal went on to the Final Four, losing to runner-up Louisville 64-57 in the NCAA tournament semifinals.
Stanford has reached 25 straight NCAA tournaments, has six consecutive 30-win seasons and is the 11-time reigning conference champion — having won both the regular-season and conference tournament titles the past seven years.
The Bears finished 32-4 overall and 17-1 in the conference. Gottlieb was away Thursday following the death of her father Sunday in New York, and represented at media day by associate head coach Charmin Smith.
Cal would love to build off of last season's success, and junior guard Brittany Boyd is as confident as ever, while Smith noted there's a long road ahead to return to the Final Four next spring.
“We're not jumping ahead and saying, 'We're going to be in Nashville,'” Smith said. “Right off the bat our standards are a lot higher, and that's a good thing. We're a lot more confident as a program. I think the national exposure and recognition we received, that's a positive for the program. It's still Cal basketball.”
Still, taking that first step last season has raised the expectations in Berkeley, where the Bears will look to fill a void left by departed Layshia Clarendon.
“It's just another sign, 'OK, it's time to go get it, it's time to get another Pac-12 championship,” Boyd said. “We still plan on being Pac-12 champions, still plan on getting to the Final Four.”
Both VanDerveer and Gottlieb received contract extensions during the offseason.
The rest of the preseason coaches' poll: Colorado (third), Washington, UCLA, USC, Utah, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon.
Everybody expects an improved showing by the conference.
“I think the Pac-10, Pac-12 has historically been underappreciated,” VanDerveer said. “We hope that we're getting to a Pac-12 renaissance in some respects.”