Catching Up with the Pac-12, Part 4
After landing in the conference's cellar last year, can Utah, Washington, and California find their way out this season?
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In the final of this four-part series, we take a look at the teams who finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 last season. Utah, Washington, and California all struggled to get over their own unique hurdles last season. Are they prepared to climb the standings next season?
2020-21 season: The Utes finished 10th in the conference standings last season. A quick look at their team stats tells the story of why. The team was 10th or worse in almost every team category. Even those categories they shined in, like finishing fifth in 3-point shots made, had a downside when considering that they were 10th in 3-point field goal percentage at just 30.3 percent. It was enough to finish 4-15 in conference play and 5-16 overall.
Part of that came down to an inconsistent lineup. Utah had seven different players start over the course of a 21-game season as injuries disrupted their stability.
Key losses: Forward Lola Pendande, who had started 38 games for the Utes in her first two seasons, decided it was time to look for new opportunities. She found her place in warmer climes with the Miami (FL) Hurricanes.
The Utes also lost several reserves: redshirt senior Zuzanna Puc moved on, freshman Donna Ntambue transferred to Northeastern, and senior Ola Makurat transferred to Arkansas State in the second move of her college career. None of the three spent much time on the floor for Utah last season.
Key returners: Utah will once again have a promising backcourt with the return of Dru Gylten and Brynna Maxwell. Gylten was having a strong season through 15 games last year before she went down with a season-ending injury. Through those 15 games, she led the Pac-12 with 5.2 assists per game. That was on-pace with her 2019-20 season when she ended the year at 5.3 APG.
Maxwell was All-Pac-12 honorable mention for the second straight season. She led the team with 12.8 points per game. She had the third-best 3-point percentage on the team at 33.6 percent while launching a team-high 128 shots from beyond the arc.
Kemery Martin joined Maxwell on the All-Pac-12 honorable mention list last season. At 11.1 PPG, she was the only other Ute to average double-digit scoring. She will return to Salt Lake City to try to take it to the next level.
In the frontcourt, the Utes return Andrea Torres, who led them in rebounding last year with 5.1 RPG.
Key additions: Utah brought in a three-player freshman class. Guards Ines Vieira and Gianna Kneepkens join forward Jenna Johnson as newcomers. The latter two both hail from Minnesota, while Vieira comes from Portugal as another in a long line of international players for the Utes.
Coach Lynne Roberts also brought in two transfers. Senior guard Maka Jackson joins Utah after two seasons at JUCO South Georgia Tech and two at Texas Tech. Sophomore forward Dasia Young arrived from UT Martin.
What’s next: Assuming that Gylten is fully healthy, the Utes should have one of the better backcourts in the Pac-12. Gylten raises the game for those around her simply by her ability to get the ball to the open shooters.
The problem is that just launching up 3-point shots hasn’t been a consistently winning proposition for the Utes because everyone on the team tries to get into the act whether they are high-percentage shooters or not. Whether that changes this season when the women’s NCAA 3-point line is moved back to match the men is open for debate.
Last season, only Kennady McQueen shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. The only other player above 34 percent was Gylten. Torres launched 78 shots from outside (the third-highest number on the team) despite hitting just 26.9 percent of them.
The Utes can hope those shots start falling, as they did the previous two seasons when the team was in the 92nd and 97th percentile in 3-point shooting percentage. Last season, their 2-point attempts fell to a six-year low while their 3-point attempts were higher than four of the previous five years. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the last two seasons--the only two where they attempted at least 22 3-pointers per game--are the only two losing seasons over that six-year period of time.
The other alternative is to hope to get more scoring inside. With the changes in the frontcourt, that’s difficult to project.
The Utes also have to shore up their defense. They allowed 102.3 points per 100 possessions last season. If these issues aren’t addressed, it’s going to be another difficult year in Salt Lake City.
2020-21 season: If it weren’t for California, Washington would be the conference’s biggest story of frustration over the past few years. Former head coach Jody Wynn was hired in 2017. That was a year after then-Huskies assistant coach Adia Barnes was hired at Arizona and a year before Kamie Ethridge was hired at Washington State.
Seeing their former staffer wildly successful with a former Husky down in the desert while their cross-state rival reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years probably didn’t cause Wynn to lose her job, but it certainly didn’t help.
The best year during Wynn’s tenure was the 13-17 record in 2019-20. This season, her team finished with just seven wins for the second time in four years. They lost 20 games twice over that four-year period.
When all was said and done, Washington decided it was time to move on.
Moving on meant hiring newly-minted WNIT champion Tina Langley from Rice. Her staff includes former NBA G League coach Dan Tacheny, former Oregon State assistant Katie Faulkner and Latara King, who Langley brought with her from Rice.
Key losses: When Wynn was fired, the transfer floodgates opened. It was a boon for JR Payne at Colorado, who got Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler off the Huskies’ roster. Khayla Rooks also transferred, using her grad year to go to UNLV.
It could have been worse. Nia Lowery and Haley Van Dyke entered the portal after Wynn was let go. Fortunately for Langley, she was able to convince them to stay.
There were also losses in the recruiting class. While you can’t lose what you never had, it is still difficult for a recruit like AJ Marotte to decide not to join the program. The four-star guard who was ranked No. 63 in the class asked to be released from her national letter of intent, eventually signing with conference foe Oregon State.
Key returners: In addition to Lowery and Van Dyke, the Huskies will return early enrollee Jess Finney, who was slated to be part of the 2021 freshman class. Finney was the No. 94 recruit in the class according to ESPN.
Key additions: Fortunately for the Huskies, the end of Wynn’s time at Washington did not signal the end of a nice recruiting class. Marisa Davis-Jones, who was the 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Arizona, originally committed to Duke. When Kara Lawson was brought in, Davis-Jones had to look around.
Wynn sold her on the Pacific Northwest. Then, Davis-Jones was right back in the position of having a coach who didn’t recruit her take over her future program. This time, staying was the right move for her and the new coach. The four-star wing is ranked No. 76 overall and No. 12 at her position by ESPN.
Langley was also able to bring talent with her from Rice. Star center Nancy Mulkey, who won the WNIT MVP last season, decided to follow her coach as a grad transfer. At 6-foot-9, she will be a handful for several Pac-12 teams. Fellow Rice starter Lauren Schwartz also made the move from Houston to Seattle.
What’s next: Mulkey and Schwartz were big additions for the Huskies, as was Davis-Jones. That trio alone should help UW climb out of the cellar of the conference. Getting near the top half of the conference isn’t a long shot for this group, although it may be too soon to expect Langley to have her program actually break into the top six of the Pac-12. If they can just improve to seventh or eighth place, Husky fans should be excited about the future. There’s no reason to expect their team to be fighting to stay out of last place next season.
California Golden Bears
2020-21 season: If it could go wrong for the Golden Bears in 2020-21, it did go wrong for them. After ending the previous year with some upward momentum and bringing in a stellar class of freshmen, the rug was almost immediately pulled out from under them—and it wasn’t just the pandemic.
The Golden Bears started the season with 11 scholarship players and two walk-ons. That didn’t last long.
They lost sophomores Cailyn Crocker and Jazlen Green and freshman Alma Elsnitz in November. Along with Leilani McIntosh, Crocker and Green were part of a dynamic backcourt as freshmen and looked like they might be able to take the Golden Bears another step forward. Having Green, Crocker, and Elsnitz out for the season immediately lowered expectations.
They lost seven games to COVID-19 issues within their program or their opponents’ program, but it didn’t end there. They later had to cancel two more because they lacked the minimum seven healthy scholarship players to compete. This time it was injuries that got in the way.
In the end, they managed just one win, taking their final regular season game against Arizona State. The season ended with a 1-16 record that included non-conference losses to San Jose State, Cal State Bakersfield, and San Francisco.
Key losses: On the positive side, the Golden Bears lost no one to transfer this off-season. They did lose most of the coaching staff, though. April Phillips first left for Arizona before switching tracks and going to Texas. Wendale Farrow joined Lindsay Gottlieb at USC. Kai Felton was moved into a position with the title “Special Assistant” in July, while three new assistant coaches were hired.
Key returners: McIntosh has started every game she has played in since she arrived in Berkeley in 2019. She and Evelien Lutje Schipholt will be the only players on the squad with more than one year’s playing experience in Smith’s program.
The return of Crocker and Green should fortify the backcourt for Cal. Of last year’s freshmen, Dalayah Daniels made the biggest impact, but all of them got their time on the court.
Key additions: The Golden Bears added Mia Mastrov, who was intended to be part of the incoming freshman class, as an early enrollee in January. So there will be only one freshman addition to the team this season. Point guard Jayda Curry should have time to learn the ropes with McIntosh, Crocker, and Green all back.
Smith also added two grad transfers to give the team a bit more experience. Bay Area native Karisma Ortiz returns home after playing for Texas and Penn State in previous stops. The Archbishop Mitty alumna was the No. 54 recruit in 2018.
Ortiz is joined by former Harvard forward Jadyn Bush. In 2017, Bush was the AP’s Washington State Player of the Year, but she hasn’t played college basketball since the 2018-19 season. After not competing during her junior season, she lost her senior year when the Ivy League canceled sports. Although the Ivy League suspended its rule that kept graduate students from competing, Bush chose to head back to the West Coast rather than staying with the Crimson.
What’s next: The Bears hope to get last year’s sophomores back as healthy juniors. The freshmen of 2020-21 were highly regarded coming out of high school, and now they have a great deal of college experience to go along with those expectations. The problem for Cal is that the team is still very young. The only seniors on the squad are walk-ons or grad transfers. Only two of the four juniors played last season.
With everyone returning, plus a few key additions, Smith and her squad might be able to finally close in on a .500 season. Her first two years have been disappointing, with the team ending at 12-19 two years ago and the disastrous pandemic campaign last season. Just approaching a .500 campaign would show some hope for the future.
If you missed the previous installments of this series, it’s not too late to catch up. Just follow the links below.