- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Twelve-time defending champions, five straight trips to the Final Four. Stanford's résumé in the Pac-12 doesn't really need much more elaboration than that. And so begins the annual exercise for the rest of the league to figure out whether it can muster enough resistance to disrupt the Cardinal's streak.
"This is probably the first year they are going to have to look over their shoulders a little bit," USC coach Michael Cooper said of the perennial champs.
The Cardinal have had the luxury of multiple stars on their rosters for the past few years, a fortuitous overlapping of talent with names like Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, Jeanette Pohlen and Nneka Ogwumike. This season, the marquee has one big name -- junior post All-American Chiney Ogwumike -- and a whole batch of young players who have yet to put their names in lights.
But Tara VanDerveer's team still shapes up like a championship-caliber squad with four returning starters. There is experience in the backcourt with junior Toni Kokenis and sophomore Amber Orrange, who came on strong at the end of last season. Last season's well-played freshmen such as Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson become experienced sophomores. Senior Joslyn Tinkle moves back from the wing into the paint to play alongside Ogwumike and last season's injured corps, including junior Mikaela Ruef and Jasmine Camp, come back on the court.
"We have a whole different team than last year," VanDerveer said. "We will be running a lot more pick-and-roll, and a lot more of the two-player game. It's very different for me."
Whether it's different for the Pac-12, or more of the same, is the question of the season.
Predicted order of finish
1. Stanford (35-2 in 2011-12): The Cardinal have the best player in the league in Chiney Ogwumike, years of Final Four experience on the roster and the motivation to go back. The Cardinal haven't lost a league game since January 2009, and while that streak looks like it could end this season, it's tough to imagine another team taking a title away.
2. Cal (25-10): The Golden Bears have no freshmen on their team, which means they have experience all over the floor -- particularly in leaders Layshia Clarendon and Gennifer Brandon. The thing that was missing last season was Cal's ability to win big games. Will it figure it out this time around? If it does, it will be a serious threat to Stanford.
3. UCLA (14-16): Jasmine Dixon, the team's second-leading scorer and top rebounder two seasons ago, is back after missing last season. She joins Markel Walker, and that duo immediately makes the Bruins better than they were last season. UCLA is happy to be back at Pauley Pavilion, reopening this season after an 18-month renovation.
4. USC (18-12): Finding a way to just miss inclusion in the NCAA tournament is becoming an art form for the Women of Troy. This is a remade roster for Michael Cooper's team, with only two returning starters and nine new players including high school All-American Jordan Adams. Junior Cassie Harberts is the team's leading returning scorer at 11.9 points a game.
5. Arizona State (20-12): Coach Charli Turner Thorne is back after a one-year sabbatical, and she's starting again with a very young team. Her most experienced player, Deja Mann, went down with an ACL injury early in the fall, making things tougher. But Turner Thorne is hoping her team's fall trip to New Zealand will help it jell more quickly.
6. Oregon State (20-13): Oregon State is only two years removed from a decimated roster and a fired coach. But the Beavers are among the most dangerous teams in the league. Coach Scott Rueck has turned Oregon State into a program that causes problems for teams up and down the standings. The Beavers open the season with their highest ranking in the Pac-12 coaches' poll (fifth) in program history.
7. Utah (16-16): The Utes' first season in the league was characterized by a multitude of injuries, and Utah coach Anthony Levrets wants to prove his team can contend in the league when his players are healthy. The Utes return their top two scorers in Taryn Wicijowski and Michelle Plouffe.
8. Washington (20-14): The Huskies want to run, and in their second season under Kevin McGuff, hope to be healthy enough to do that. Fifth-year senior Kristi Kingma, one of the league's top shooters, is back after missing last season with an ACL injury. The Huskies also return reigning freshman of the year Jazmine Davis.
9. Washington State (13-20): June Daugherty's program won its first Pac-12 tournament games last season. The Cougars have three starters back and six freshmen.
10. Colorado (21-14): Senior guard Chucky Jeffery leads the Buffaloes into their second season in the Pac-12.
"Probably for the first time since this staff has been here, we have a group of juniors and seniors who have been in a lot of different scenarios and some big games, have won the big games," third-year coach Linda Lappe said. "This year we have some of the components it takes to put some things together and have a special season."
11. Arizona (15-17): The Wildcats have one of the league's best guards in Davellyn Whyte but not a lot else to help them compete with the league's top teams.
12. Oregon (15-16): Paul Westhead is starting his fourth season in Eugene, and the Ducks are not headed in the direction anyone wanted them to go. Oregon is down its top six scores from last season.
Players to watch
Gennifer Brandon, junior, F, Cal: Brandon might well rival Chiney Ogwumike's athleticism, and she broke the school's single-season rebounding record last season with 346. She pulled down 24 rebounds last season in one game against Ohio State.
Markel Walker, senior, G/F, UCLA: Walker, who missed an early chunk of last season with a thumb injury, came on to average 14.9 points and 11 rebounds per game in 2011-12 and was the fourth player in UCLA history to record a triple double. She is perhaps the most versatile player in the league.
Jazmine Davis, sophomore, G, Washington: The Huskies sophomore, who was Washington's first freshman of the year honoree since 1988, will build on her outstanding freshman season in which she led Washington, averaging 15.7 points per game.