Pac-12 basketball is tipping the scale in East versus West debate

Stanford's Haley Jones, the Most Outstanding Player of last year's Final Four (Kevin Light/Getty Images)

In women’s college basketball, west coast players often have an extra chip on their shoulder from the perception that left coast teams just aren’t given as much respect as east coast programs. Stanford star Haley Jones felt it during their 2021 National Championship run. 

“I think at Stanford, we’re always kind of seen as an underdog. Even though we were the number one overall [seed] it’s still like, ‘Oh, but are they gonna win?’” she voiced to NCAA Digital. “You know ‘west coast basketball’ or whatever. I think we proved ourselves last year and we still have more to do this year.”

Historically speaking, eastern and southern schools have qualified for the NCAA tourney and Final Four at much higher rates than their Pacific facing counterparts. Of the 44 programs that have been to a Final Four, only 8 are located west of the continental divide, and only two of those teams (Stanford and USC) have ever won the title.

But in the last five years, the west coast’s tide has been steadily rising (no climate change pun intended). Since 2016, the Pac-12 boasts the most Final Four appearances, the most NCAA tournament wins, and the highest tournament winning percentage of any conference. At least half of all Pac-12 teams have qualified for the tournament for four consecutive years compared with the two or three that typically did a decade ago. And three additional non-Stanford schools have now qualified for the Final Four. Oregon State and Washington made it in 2016, and Arizona joined Stanford last spring for the first ever all Pac-12 Championship game.

In their bid to defend their title, the Stanford Cardinal are returning 12 of 13 from their championship roster, including 2021 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and “Super Senior” Anna Wilson, who’s taking advantage of the NCAA’s Covid-19 policies and returning to play for Coach Tara VanDerveer for an extra season.

Arizona, on the other hand, has an enormous hole to fill after Aari McDonald went third overall in the WNBA draft, having risen to college basketball stardom during the Wildcats’ run to the NCAA title game last year. McDonald had 109 assists on the season, 69 more than the next highest player on the team, and averaged 20.6 points per game. Only one of her teammates, returning forward Cate Reese, averaged double-figure scoring alongside her at 10.9 points per game. 

Adia Barnes will have depth at the 2, 3, and 4, but a much shallower roster at the point and center. Without obvious answers to where their scoring and playmaking production will come from, the floor is open for untapped potential to rise to the surface, but the process will likely be felt in the win-loss column.

Up in Eugene, the Oregon Ducks are looking to sustain momentum from a productive year of rebuilding after the 2020 WNBA draft took their Big Three (Sabrina Ionescue, Satou Sabally, and Ruthy Hebard) and Covid-19 robbed them of their best chance in school history for a national title. Now Coach Kelly Graves has a front court centered on 6’7” junior Sedona Prince and Satou’s younger sister, Nyara Sabally, who led the Ducks in points and rebounds last season. Graves’ sophomore court general, Te-Hina Paopao, did an impressive job filling the gap left by Ionescue until a right foot injury caused her to miss the last month of the season. A year of chemistry building and experience for their underclasswomen have many expecting a solid upswing from Oregon.

UCLA has been another Pac-12 program to put themselves on the national map in recent years. They have qualified for five straight NCAA tournaments and had made it to four straight Sweet 16’s before getting knocked out by Texas this past year in the second round. Heading into 2021-22, they have five new faces to replace three significant contributors who graduated, most notably Michele Onyenwere, who went on to earn WNBA Rookie of the Year after a fantastic season with the New York liberty. Their prospective depth, along with the continued stellar output of junior guard Charisma Osborne, should help Cori Close’s squad battle Oregon for that second-place spot in the Pac-12, assuming Stanford wins the conference.

Oregon State and Washington State will also look to repeat as NCAA tourney selections as the rest of the conference will continue paddling onto the wave of the Pac-12’s rising stock.

Whether west coast teams are actually undervalued is mostly irrelevant (apart from NCAA tourney seeding bias). But there’s no denying that the college game benefits when the Haley Joneses, Charisma Osbornes, and Sedona Princes play like they have something extra to prove while representing their west coast campuses. And chances are good we’ll get to see more than one of them take their team on a deep run come March Madness 2022.