SEATTLE (AP) — Kelsey Plum’s chase of the NCAA scoring record was supposed to put an added spotlight on the Pac-12 women’s tournament.
Washington’s senior star had other plans and became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer on the final weekend of the regular season, leaving the quality and depth of the Pac-12 to be the showcase when the conference tournament begins Thursday.
“It’s a war every night and it always has been. I think the depth is amazing,” Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. “I think everybody who makes (a) postseason tournament, no matter what it is, is going to be well-prepared.”
The conference tournament gets underway with four opening round games: California vs. USC; Arizona State vs. Utah; Washington State vs. Colorado; and Oregon vs. Arizona. No. 6 Oregon State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 11 Washington and No. 15 UCLA received byes to Friday’s quarterfinals.
The depth of the conference is such that California finished eighth in the regular season and is still under consideration for an NCAA at-large bid. Utah ended up with the No. 12 seed in the conference tournament but threatened Washington on the final weekend of the regular season after winning at Washington State.
There is a clear delineation between the top four, which are among the national elite, and the rest of the conference. But the conference as a whole is collectively better.
“I think the bottom is up a little bit. I think the top is good. I think the top has been good,” Rueck said. “I mean, I remember a year ago, we didn’t feel like our conference was bad. . I thought last year was ridiculous, too.”
Oregon State, Washington, Stanford and UCLA are locks for the NCAAs and three of the four could end up hosting first- and second-round games. Stanford can’t do so this season because of a conflict at Maples Pavilion.
Arizona State and Oregon seem likely to be in the NCAA field, leaving only a couple of possibilities for teams to play their way into the tournament with a strong showing in Seattle.
Perhaps no one has more at stake than California. The Golden Bears ended the regular season with five loses in six games, but won at Oregon on the final weekend and will get a shot at No. 1 seed Oregon State in the quarterfinals if the Bears can get past USC in the opener. California’s 12-0 record in the non-conference portion of the schedule was strong enough that even a 6-12 Pac-12 mark has them on the fringe of the NCAA conversation.
“We know, with our experience from last year, that we can be the hottest team for four days,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “That’s what we need to do. We have a ton of urgency. . There’s an opportunity for a lot of big wins, and that’s what’s important, I think.”
A year ago as the 10th seed, the Bears knocked off second-seeded Arizona State in the quarterfinals before losing to UCLA in the semis.
“Our intent is to go into Seattle and be the story,” Gottlieb said.
And while Plum has taken care of surpassing Jackie Stiles and becoming the NCAA’s scoring champion, there will still be plenty of attention on Washington’s star after her 57-point outburst against Utah that gave her the top spot on the all-time scoring list.
“Now every basket she makes is more history,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.