It seemed as though every season, one or more Pacific-10 Conference teams would get aced out of the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, coach Charli Turner Thorne was livid that her 17-12 Sun Devils didn’t get in. Before that, it was 18-11 UCLA. Before that, 19-12 Washington.
And on and on and on.
It had been a sore spot for years. The conference, many said, didn’t get the respect others did because of mediocre records that resulted from an ultra-competitive conference.
In other words, very solid teams beat up on each other twice a season.
The answer: Make noise in preseason by scheduling and beating national powers. It would do two things: One, beating good teams raises an individual team’s RPI, or rating percentage index, a formula the NCAA Selection Committee relies on to pare the field down. Two, if conference teams were successful against non-conference foes, the conference RPI would rise.
That’s what’s happened in 2004-05.
The Pac-10’s RPI is second to that of the Big 12. Four teams are in the top 25: Stanford is No. 7; ASU is eighth; UCLA is 17th; and Arizona is 23rd.
The Pac-10 has done very well, indeed, in inter-conference play. Arizona State has beaten national powers UConn and Georgia. Stanford beat Texas Tech and came within a buzzer 3-pointer of beating all-powerful Tennessee; UCLA beat Texas and Purdue; Washington beat Minnesota, while losing to Notre Dame and Baylor.
“The conference is doing great,” UCLA coach Kathy Olivier said. “I’ve been asked if the conference has been slighted in the past. I think there’s been a lot of camaraderie this year between the conference’s coaches. Everyone’s tired of the West Coast being shut out. I feel like everyone’s pulling for each other. I think that’s been a big plus for the conference.”
Washington has been a leader to that end. Despite not having a senior on the roster and having suffered heavy graduation losses, UW coach June Daugherty made out the toughest non-conference schedule in her nine years as the Huskies’ head coach.
Washington has 12 freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Predictably, it’s had its struggles. Yet, Daugherty is hoping the competition will both toughen her team and boost the conference’s RPI. It may not do wonders for the win-loss ledger, but the benefits will come.
“It’s been a very ambitious schedule,” Daugherty said. “Playing the fifth, sixth and seventh-ranked team in the country has been a tough chore for us. But we’re better as a team. We’ve learned a lot. The whole idea about playing this competition gets us ready for the Pac-10.
“And obviously, the Pac-10 looks better than it’s ever been.”
Arizona has suffered losses to No. 9 Ohio State and No. 14 Georgia, but coach Joan Bonvicini says her star, post player Shawntinice Polk, has been logging time with minor injuries.
Polk is healthy now, which is bad news for the rest of the conference. Having noted some big wins by the conference, Bonvicini predicts the Pac-10 will have its best season.
“I see unbelievable competitiveness,” she said. “I think the conference has gained a lot of respect. Everyone in the conference has played great teams, both at home and on the road and has had some great wins. Now we have to continue upward. To do that, you really have to win your home games and steal some on the road.”
In preseason, Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA have separated themselves from the rest. Yet, even the second division has pulled off impressive victories and could knock off the favorites.
“There are some very, very tough venues in the conference,” Turner Thorne said. “I felt like the Pac-10 was going to do very well before the season and it’s done better than I’d believed. The conference is pretty awesome and we’re beginning to show that to the rest of the nation.”
Yes, but what will be the opinion at the end of the season, after the teams beat each other up in conference play?