Women’s college basketball mailbag: After Stanford, who’s best in Pac-12?

I’m back, baby.

Quite literally … I’m back (after having a) baby. I’ve returned to a women’s college basketball landscape that has, sadly, had far too many injuries but is still delivering on its promise to surprise us at every turn. Truly, imagine my shock that when I left my job I knew Illinois as a team that won a single Big Ten game last season and I returned to a ranked Illini squad that has already won four conference games and gone toe-to-toe with the Big Ten’s top-ranked teams in Ohio State and Indiana. Talk about college basketball whiplash.

There’s certainly a lot to discuss (and now, Illinois is officially a part of that conversation — welcome, Illini fans). It’s our first mailbag of the year — let’s go.

Who do you think is the second-best team in the Pac-12? —Benjamin L.

I’m starting off with a difficult question here …

With Stanford at No. 1, UCLA and Arizona are in the second-best conversation, and both have different strengths. The Bruins have been great on the glass and their all-around defense has been strong. It’s nice to see veteran Gina Conti, who transferred to UCLA before the 2021-22 season but missed last year with an injury, finally on the floor and pairing nicely with freshman Kiki Rice. Arizona impressed me this past weekend as the Wildcats showed how they can score in spurts (though notably, they can also go dry in spurts) to put together comebacks against Oregon and Oregon State. Their depth took a hit with Lauren Ware’s injury, and I’d feel more confident about Arizona if it had her securing the middle on both ends of the floor, but this is a very balanced team with multiple players who can prove difficult to stop.

I realize the Utes are currently ranked higher than the Wildcats in the AP poll, but I’m withholding judgment on them until they get a bit further into conference play. The 50-point shellacking of Oklahoma earlier this season was impressive, but I want to see how they perform against teams in the top half of the Pac-12. So far, the only sample size we have is Colorado, and the Utes have gone 1-1 with a recent 10-point loss to the Buffs. With Arizona, Stanford and UCLA on the docket before the end of the month, we should have a better idea of ​​where the Utes stand.

Is Cameron Brink a better player than Haley Jones? Has Jones’ game improved since her freshman year? The eye test seems to say no. —Matt C.

I hate comparing players when they play different positions and have such different roles. Is Brink a more valuable player than Jones in certain situations? Yeah. Would I rather have Jones on the floor in other situations? Absolutely. Notably, if I had to pick only one of them on whom to rely in the fourth quarter with four fouls … I’m not picking Brink.

In terms of Jones’ game, she has made major strides since her first season at Stanford. Her decision-making, vision and timing, specifically in terms of her passing — something that separates her from so many players across the country — have improved. Her leadership, which is an area that might be hard to gauge from outside of the program, has improved and been pivotal to Stanford from what I hear. And that’s key when you think about the Cardinal leaders who have graduated over the course of Jones’ career — Kiana Williams, the Hull twins. Additionally this season, Stanford has Jones playing as a three more frequently, which has forced her onto the perimeter in defensive situations, expanding her role at a fair deal. Three years ago, I don’t think she would’ve handled that responsibility as well.

Do you think there are any college players who could supplant Aliyah Boston and/or Haley Jones as the top two WNBA draft picks? — Jen B.

The 2023 draft class is even more wide open and dependent on need than even last year’s draft class, based off what I’m hearing. Last year, we had a 1A/1B situation with Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith, and, as it proved closer to draft day, a 1C option in Shakira Austin. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with Boston and Jones right now.

At this point, it’s very much Boston at No. 1 … and then a group of players who will fall to teams based on need. And I don’t see that changing. Jones certainly is among players who could be lottery picks, but by no means is she a lock at No. 2. WNBA free agency officially began this week and as rosters begin to form a bit more, we’ll have a much better idea of who could fit where. Could Jones be the right addition for Minnesota at No. 2? Definitely. But, depending on the moves GM Clare Duwelius makes with the current roster, someone else (Diamond Miller? Rickea Jackson? Ashley Joens?) could make more sense. The Dream have two first-round picks, including the third-overall pick, and an early second-round pick (which shouldn’t be discounted as you’ll remember Atlanta got the steal of the 2022 draft with its early second-round pick of Naz Hillmon at No. 15). Their roster has space for a lot of potential change between now and April.

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Does it feel like there’s more parity in WBB this year compared with the past? South Carolina and Stanford are the two best teams, but neither looks unbeatable. The race for the final 2 Final Four spots looks wide open. — Braydon R.

We ask this question and have this conversation almost every season after a few teams get knocked off (or struggle) early in conference play. Here’s the tough thing about conference play, especially when you have long-tenured coaches in a league: It’s a lot more about execution, showing up and knowing your assignments rather than just being the best player or the quote-unquote better team. So, Oregon State giving Arizona a run for its money? Not surprising. Scott Rueck and Adia Barnes have history. Michigan State beating Indiana? Suzy Merchant and Brenda Frese are well acquainted. I wasn’t even that surprised to see Mississippi State put up a good showing against South Carolina as Bulldogs coach Sam Purcell has done quite a bit of scouting on the Gamecocks after facing them with Louisville last season in the Final Four.

I agree with you, neither South Carolina nor Stanford looks untouchable this season. Though the Gamecocks are still my pick to repeat as national champs, I feel less convinced now than I did coming into the year. But it’s college basketball. These are 18- to 23-year-old women. Very rarely do I feel overly confident about a pick to win a national title three months out. After all, Ohio State’s press is going to give teams fits. Angel Reese could go off on any team this year. Indiana actually has depth and is getting healthy again. UConn’s lineup roulette might end up being a silver lining in March when multiple Huskies are called upon to step up. And the list goes on and on…

Sometimes people still think women’s basketball is dominated solely by UConn and Tennessee. But times, they are a-changin’. There have been five different national champs in the last six seasons. Those five champs have faced four different teams in the national title game (not including teams that won it in the same span). And there have been four other Final Four teams (that didn’t make the national championship game) in that same time span. That’s 12 different teams.

Who do you think has impacted their WNBA draft stock the most based on the college season so far? —Kevin H.

Given how few WNBA spots are available, it’s hard for draft-eligible players to really surprise anyone with just two months of play during their final (or potentially final) season. That said, it sounds like Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist, who leads the nation in scoring, has popped onto more folks’ radars. I was also hearing good things about Iowa State’s Stephanie Soares before her season-ending ACL injury. Neither of those players would’ve been on most mock drafts a year or two ago.

But even for juniors, that top group of 2024 draft picks has remained pretty much the same — Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cam Brink, Hailey Van Lith — since their freshman seasons. Surprises on WNBA Draft boards are rare.

Are there any coaches that have impressed you at this point in the season? Any frontrunners for COY? — Camille H.

Hello, Ill. coach Shauna Green. If a vote existed for midseason coach of the year, it’d be going to her than her. The Illini have already doubled last season’s win total by using a rotation of seven that includes four returning players from last year’s seven-win team and three transfers. So, it’s not as though Green went and wholesaled out for an entirely new squad. Two of the top three players on last year’s team transferred and Green smartly brought in transfers who fit her system while raising the play of returners.

Others who have impressed: Ohio State’s Kevin McGuff — the Buckeyes’ defense and press have taken a huge step forward this season, improving from nine steals a game last season to 14 this season. … Can I say Chris Dailey here? I know she was UConn’s interim head coach, but this team has gone through a lot this season. The Huskies have shuffled through more lineups because of injuries than almost every other team in the country, Geno Auriemma missed four games and Dailey herself suffered a scary accident ahead of a game in November. And yet, she stepped into the head coaching seat with ease, provided stability and dealt with uncertainty while going 4-0 in Auriemma’s absence.

What is the ceiling for this year’s UCLA team? I’m pleased with the effort and think the team has a good cohesiveness, but conference play seems to be going a little rougher than I thought. Is this team capable of an Elite Eight or better run? —Michael T.

As I wrote earlier, familiarity between tenured conference coaches usually correlates to a lot of tight and exciting games. Given the amount of talent and tenured coaches in the Pac-12 and Big Ten, I don’t see very many (any?) teams getting through those unscathed conferences. So, fear not, Bruins fans.

I expected UCLA to struggle some in conference play. They’re young, and that’s a part of the deal. Three of their rotation players are true freshmen — Kiki Rice, Londynn Jones and Gabriela Jaquez. A fourth, Emily Bessoir, is a redshirt sophomore who has only one season under her belt and is coming off an ACL injury. Gina Conti is still in her first season playing for UCLA (and also coming off an injury that kept her out last year). So, while coach Cori Close has the benefit of experience and continuity with Charisma Osborne and Cam Brown, this team is relatively new to each other and relatively new to college basketball. But if the Bruins can get through the Pac-12 season healthy, they could be dangerous in March. That’s the benefit of being young. Potential is always there and the growth that happens for first-year players between Game 1 and Game 25 is really something.

(Photo of Haley Jones: Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

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