Pac-12 women's basketball seemed deeper than ever six months ago with an unexpected conference tournament champion and plenty of upsets throughout the season. But this summer the conference collapsed and there are now more questions than answers for all the teams involved.
A year ago, UCLA and USC announced they were leaving for the Big Ten in 2024, which was just the beginning of the chaotic conference realignment taking place this summer.
Oregon and Washington decided to follow them to the Big Ten, while Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah joined the Big 12. In the latest development, the. So now only Oregon State and Washington State remain in the Pac-12.
It's no secret that the conference realignment was more about football and TV deals than anything else but women's basketball, like other sports, will be greatly affected.
Even with UCLA and USC leaving, the Pac-12 seemed like it was going to be just fine. It's only been two years since the NCAA Tournament saw two Pac-12 schools meet in the championship game as Stanford took the 2021 national title against Arizona. The quality of basketball has hardly gone down since then.
This past season, Washington State took the conference tournament title as the No. 7 seed, becoming the lowest seeded team to win it in the history of the Pac-12. Meanwhile, Utah cracked the AP Top 10 for the first time in program history and Colorado made its first Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
The tough conference competition helped reach a record-tying seven teams appearing in the 2023 NCAA Tournament with Arizona, Colorado, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah and Washington State. Now there is only one more season of these teams battling it out on the West Coast.
The Stanford women's basketball team has been the team to beat in the Pac-12, so it's worth taking a closer look at how the Cardinal will be affected by conference realignment.
Legendary Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has won the most games in women's college basketball history, has been a vocal supporter of the conference for decades, and she was understandably upset to see it all collapse. However, she is also looking forward to the competition the ACC, the No.2 conference behind the Pac-12 in last season's NET rankings, will offer.
"Having coached in the Pac-12 for 38 years or whatever, almost 40 years, it was really painful to see it disappear in 40 minutes. ... It's a lot of anger, how did this get so bungled? But here we are and I'm absolutely thrilled that we're in the ACC," she told The Associated Press.
Scheduling will have to be more strategic
The Stanford athletic department said in a statement Friday it expects 22 of its 36 sports "will see either no scheduling changes or minimal scheduling impacts." The university said it will also work with the ACC to "optimize scheduling" and try to do things such as make most athletic events take place during the weekends to minimize the impact of travel for student-athletes.
The trips during conference play are still going to be longer than usual, as well as more expensive -- which could impact the ability of fans to travel as well.
Stanford has played tough opponents on the East Coast for its non-conference schedule, including a showdown with 2022 national champion South Carolina last November. Games like that might still happen, but VanDerveer told ESPN she plans to do more West Coast nonconference games to compensate for ACC travel.
She also added that recruiting on the West Coast shouldn't be an issue because traveling across the country is now common for any team in any league.
"Now everybody's in the same mess... We're excited. We're all in this mess," VanDerveer told the AP.
Stanford can still be a powerhouse
Stanford is a Pac-12 giant but the conference shouldn't matter too much for a team that was already beating top teams all over the country. The Cardinal have won three NCAA Tournament titles, two in the 90s and the most recent one in 2021. Only UConn (11) and Tennessee (8) have more titles.
VanDerveer is the winningest coach in women's basketball history and has helped the Cardinal stay consistent since she took over in the 80s. As any coach knows, to be the best you have to beat the best, and the ACC should help Stanford keep its high level of basketball.
In the last six tournaments, the ACC has had a total of 47 selections, which is more than any other conference. Eight teams from the ACC made the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament, becoming the fifth consecutive year it led or tied other conferences for most participants.
Duke has the most regular-season ACC championships (nine outright, three tied), but the Blue Devils haven't played Stanford since 2012. As for the most recent ACC Tournament champion Virginia Tech, the Hokies have never faced the Cardinal.
The reigning ACC regular-season champion is Notre Dame, a team that won the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Irish went back to the championship game the following year, after taking down Stanford in the Elite Eight. They've met a total of six times, with Stanford leading the all-time series 4-2. Four of the meetings have been in the NCAA Tournament, and the last time they played during the regular season was in the early 90s, so this could be a good opportunity for both programs to start a rivalry.
Stanford is in the middle of rebuilding
Stanford has won 26 regular-season conference titles as well as 15 Pac-12 Tournament trophies – the most by any other Pac-12 team. However, last season was a down year for the Cardinal, at least by their impossibly high standards.
They missed the Pac-12 Tournament title game for the first time since 2016 after getting upset by UCLA in the semifinals. The Cardinal still earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but then failed to make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007.
No one should doubt VanDerveer's ability to bounce back, but the next few seasons are filled with uncertainty as it moves to the ACC in 2024-25. This year, the Cardinal will still have WBCA Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Brink – the team's leading scorer and rebounder. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, Brink and fifth-year guard Hannah Jump are the only double-digit scorers remaining after Haley Jones left for the WNBA.
Not to look too far ahead, but this will be Brink's senior season, which means 2024 could be an intimidating year for Stanford in a new conference without any star veterans. The Cardinal had three players enter the transfer portal this offseason -- including former No. 1 overall recruit Lauren Betts.
Other players can certainly step up this season and make a name for themselves, but right now the competition is tough in women's basketball with teams such as South Carolina and LSU challenging UConn and Stanford's dynasty status. LSU, the 2023 NCAA Tournament champion, has its fair share of young stars who can keep the Tigers stable beyond next season – but Stanford doesn't have that luxury at the moment.