Week 2 with the Pac-12: Absences and Injuries Strike the Contenders
Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, and USC had to overcome missing pieces during the second week of play
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It’s been a rough week for the teams projected to finish first through third in the Pac-12. Stanford, Oregon, and UCLA have all played at least one game without a crucial player recently. For Oregon and UCLA, the losses are deep and may continue for weeks.
Teams who were projected to finish further down in the pecking order might be poised to take advantage of the difficulties of the heavyweights. Some of them are having their own issues with injuries, though.
Last week, they all had difficulty overcoming those injuries. As the teams head into the Thanksgiving weekend when many of them will be playing multiple games in just a few days, depth issues may hit some of the best teams in the league even harder.
After losing a number of expected contributors to transfer in the offseason, Oregon appeared to have plugged one major hole by bringing in former USC point guard Endyia Rogers. However, she and sophomore point guard Te-Hina Paopao were injured before the regular season even got underway.
Rogers broke a bone in her left hand the first week of November and has been in a cast since. Paopao’s injury is unspecified, but she has not played since the team’s first exhibition game. Neither has played yet during the regular season, and Rogers is expected to be out until at least the beginning of Pac-12 play at the end of December.
The depth in the backcourt has also been affected by the absence of freshman Taylor Bigby. The point guard out of Las Vegas was the No. 29 recruit in the nation, but she’s only appeared in one game so far this year due to an injury to her left ankle. James Crepea reported in The Oregonian that she was in a walking boot when the team faced Dixie State on Nov. 14. She did not appear in the Ducks’ three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Nyara Sabally was dominant in their five-point victory over Oklahoma with 30 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in 33 minutes despite the absence of her teammates. Unfortunately, the Ducks were hit again when she missed their games against No. 1 South Carolina and South Florida.
Sabally injured her right knee in the season opener and missed the game against Dixie State. Her attempt to return was short-lived. Oregon dropped both games without her and found itself tumbling six spots down the AP rankings to No. 15 as a result.
UCLA is in a similar boat. Last year, the Bruins suffered from extreme depth issues due to problems getting international players into the country, injuries, and Covid-19 opt-outs. This year, they were supposed to have the luxury of extra players, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
Head coach Cori Close brought in four transfers in the offseason. Graduate transfers Gina Conti and Jaelynn Penn were expected to give the Bruins extra depth at guard while they await their top-ranked recruiting class for the 2022-23 season. Fellow grad transfer IImar’I Thomas was meant to add a big scoring punch. Sophomore Angela Dugalic was due to give the team long-term talent at the forward position. Two of the four are already out with injuries.
Conti and Dugalic have yet to play this season. Dugalic suffered a knee contusion during a scrimmage at Texas on Oct. 30, and Conti hurt her foot the next day during practice. Conti’s injury required surgery. Both are expected to be out for an extended period of time.
Conti began the season as the presumed starting point guard for a UCLA team picked to finish third in the conference. Without her, Close said that Penn and Charisma Osborne would pick up the slack.
Then came the big blow. Osborne was injured late in the Bruins’ game against Cal State Northridge on Nov. 18. She missed UCLA’s game against Virginia on Sunday, and the program has stated that she’s “day to day” with a foot injury.
That isn’t the end of the Bruins’ woes, though. In early October, Emily Bessoir announced that she tore her ACL and would be out for the entire season. The second-year forward was Pac-12 All-Freshman last season, scoring 7.5 points and grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game.
Close says that her team is simply giving her what they can as a group and working through the adversity.
“Coach Tasha (Brown) said in one of the time outs that their second wind is on the other side of hard,” Close said after the win over Virginia. “So, lean into the adversity. Lean into it, and let’s get to that other side of hard where the really good, special growth happens.”
Defending champion Stanford is also trying to work through some adversity. In the opening week, they struggled with ball control. With four games now under their belt, they have just 58 assists to 69 turnovers.
The lack of ball security cost the Cardinal a defeat at the hands of the Texas Longhorns. This past week, they were faced with yet another obstacle to overcome.
The Cardinal traveled to Spokane to take on Gonzaga on Nov. 21. The Bulldogs are a tough team under any circumstances, but Stanford faced their opponent without starting guard Haley Jones.
The program didn’t release the reason for Jones’ absence, simply stating that she was “unavailable” for the contest against Gonzaga. Without her, they struggled to put the unranked Bulldogs away. The Cardinal were able to sneak away with a 66-62 victory, but it did not allay many fears in the hearts of the Stanford faithful.
The assist-to-turnover ratio continued to be questionable with 13 assists and an equal number of turnovers. Other problems cropped up, as well. Most concerning was an inability to hit free throws. The Cardinal went 8 for 18 from the charity stripe with many of the misses coming down the stretch as Gonzaga worked to extend the game. The ploy is rarely successful, but it nearly got the victory for the Bulldogs.
Stanford is on its way to the Bahamas to take part in the Baha Mar Hoops Pink Flamingo Championship over the holiday. According to Michelle Smith of Pac-12.com, Jones is with the team. Whether she will compete in all of the games this week is unclear. The Cardinal will need to clean up their game if they hope to defeat No. 4 Indiana, No. 18 South Florida, and No. 2 Maryland.
If anyone at the top falters, it might give some of the teams in the middle of the league a shot at moving up. At one time, it seemed to be in USC’s future that they would be among those teams. Alissa Pili was a major reason why.
Pili was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year two seasons ago. It looked like she and Rogers would lead the program into the future. Rogers bolted for Oregon in the offseason, but the Women of Troy still had Pili. At least, they have her when she’s healthy.
Last year, Pili missed 10 of the team’s 23 games. When she returned from injury, she never seemed to get back into the groove that made her so dominant her freshman season. Her scoring dropped from 16.3 ppg to 11. Her eight rebounds per contest became 3.8. She went from a 51.1 percent shooter to a 41.5 percent shooter.
This year is starting off in much the same way. Pili has appeared in only one regular-season game for the Women of Troy. She scored five points and corralled three rebounds in 19 minutes in the season-opening win over Hawai’i. She hasn’t played since.
USC tweeted a picture of her on Nov. 20 at the Missouri State game. Pili was in street clothes, but the program has simply said she is “day-to-day with an injury.” A picture of the team from Cancun on Nov. 24 shows Pili with something dark on her left foot, but the picture is not clear enough to determine whether it’s a boot, a brace, or just a dark sock.
Last year, the loss of Pili was a major blow to USC. Even after she returned from injury, she did not seem to be the same player that she was as a freshman. Will she be a consistent contributor this season? It’s difficult to see the Women of Troy being competitive if she isn’t.
Voting for the Best
In this section, I discuss the weekly Pac-12 honors. I will talk about my vote, why I voted that way, and why it might differ from that of my peers.
Pac-12 Player of the Week
My vote: IImar’I Thomas, UCLA
The winner: Nyara Sabally, Oregon
Consistency is important. A lot of players can have one big game. Can they sustain that? In the end, that made the difference for me.
Oregon’s Sabally won the nod of the panel on the basis of a great game against Oklahoma. She scored 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. It was an impressive performance, to be sure, but it was the only game she played in all week. She was injured and did not play against South Carolina.
Thomas averaged 20 points on 16-for-24 shooting over two games. She led UCLA in scoring against CSUN. With the injury to Osborne, she was critical to the Bruins pulling off the win against Virginia in a game that they led by just five points heading into the final quarter. She showed consistency over the course of the week.
Had Oklahoma been a stronger opponent, it would have been enough to overcome the fact that Sabally played in only one game. At this point, the Sooners are a program that hasn’t finished over .500 since 2017-18 and that plays in a relatively weak conference. I don’t rate them as the kind of quality opponent that tips the scales.
When there’s only one opponent and it’s not a strong one, two games are better than one. Thomas wins.
Pac-12 Freshman of the Week
My vote: Jayda Curry, California
The winner: Jayda Curry, California
For the second straight week, Curry was crowned the best first-year player in the conference. She has some things going for her. To win honors as a freshman, a player must be on a team that lacks the kind of depth that keeps freshmen on the bench. In other words, a young team. That often means that the team is an up-and-comer or bottom-of-the-league team. Cal meets those criteria.
It’s not just that Curry is scoring a lot. More importantly, she’s doing it when her team really needs her to.
The Golden Bears were in danger of losing to UC San Diego last week. They built a big lead, then the Tritons came roaring back with a 24-point third quarter to make a game of it. Curry raised her game at that time, scoring 15 of her 20 points in the second half and nailing her free throws down the stretch.
In two games, she averaged 19 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. The last number might be more impressive than the fact that she’s the nation’s leading scorer among freshmen. The fact that she’s able to get her teammates involved at her age bodes well for the Bears.
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