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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Pac-12 flexing its muscle

By Michelle Smith

The Pac-12's women’s basketball coaches have spent years trying to convince others -- and sometimes themselves -- that their league is a rougher, tougher place than it is perceived to be.

This year, though, the Pac-12 has a strong case for folks to buy what they are selling.

Markel Walker, Empress Davenport
UCLA's Markel Walker is averaging 8.8 rebounds and a team-high 15.1 points.

Colorado’s entrance into the Associated Press Top 25 after an upset win over Louisville ran the Buffs' record to 9-0 and marked the first time since 2006 that the West Coast’s top conference has had four teams ranked nationally.

The Pac-12 has the No. 1 team in the country in Stanford. California is eighth, followed by No. 12 UCLA and No. 25  Colorado. Five teams -- Colorado, Stanford, Utah, Cal and UCLA -- have one loss or less. Seven teams, including Washington and Arizona, have at least seven victories. Nine teams, including Arizona State and Oregon State, are above .500.

And there are upsets to brag about. Stanford defeated top-ranked Baylor. UCLA took down Oklahoma and Texas. Colorado beat Louisville. Even 3-5 Washington State is getting some momentum out of a home win over Ohio State last weekend.

“I don’t think I remember a time when I’ve felt so much momentum,” said UCLA coach Cori Close, whose team is 7-1. “We can talk about the Pac-12 and rah-rah about it all we want, but until you go and beat people … There are a whole slew of programs who are not just talking, but are backing it up with their play right now.”

Injuries across the league kept the Pac-12 from a stronger season in its new configuration a year ago. Teams such as UCLA, Southern California, Washington and Utah had significant injuries issues and it hampered the league’s overall strength.

“I think this season is the norm,” Utah coach Anthony Levrets said. “I think what we saw last year was an enigma. The conference of champions was the conference of injuries. I think this league is really good and it’s really deep.”

Oddly, USC is one of the teams on the outside looking into all that success. The Women of Troy are young -- with three freshmen in the starting lineup -- and struggling with a strong schedule, including relatively close losses to Nebraska, Gonzaga and Texas A&M.

USC hosts No. 4 Duke on Saturday.

“I think the Pac-12 is showing that it can stand equal with anyone and I’m enjoying it, but I just wish we were part of it,” USC coach Michael Cooper said. ”Duke is coming in and if we play and compete, maybe we’ll get our win among the rest of them.”

The Pac-12 has to hope that for all this improvement, March will be kind. The conference hasn’t sent more than three teams into the NCAA tournament field since 2006-07.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose team has won 12 straight league titles and hasn’t lost a conference game since 2009, said she is thrilled to see the upgrade in conference competition. Having more teams upgrade the conference RPI only helps the pace-setting Cardinal.

Stanford is about to hit its toughest stretch of the nonconference season after Wednesday’s game with South Carolina, followed by a Saturday match at Tennessee and then the Dec. 29 clash with Connecticut -- expected to be a 1-2 showdown -- at Maples Pavilion. That stretch is followed by a Pac-12 opening set against Utah and Colorado, which are a combined 16-1 so far.

“I’ve known for a long time that we have really good talent,” VanDerveer said. “Teams are making some noise out here and it’s great. We want to keep it going for us as well.”