SEATTLE – For a change, talking about Pac-12 women's basketball from a national perspective doesn't stop after mentioning No. 4 Stanford.
Right behind the Cardinal, and sharing the conference title this year, is rapidly improving and fifth-ranked California. Not too far back are No. 14 UCLA and the surprise of the season, No. 18 Colorado. Even recently downtrodden Washington is showing signs of resurgence and is on the verge of a 20-win season.
While the top to bottom depth of the Pac-12 could still use improvement, the coaches see the league becoming stronger and receiving more worthy recognition.
The depth of the conference will get a chance to showcase itself this week when the Pac-12 tournament moves out of Los Angeles and gets a four-day billing at KeyArena in Seattle.
Stanford, California, UCLA and Colorado all received first-round byes. The tournament begins on Thursday with fifth-seeded Washington facing No. 12 Oregon; No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 Arizona; No. 7 USC vs. No. 10 Oregon State and No. 8 Washington State vs. No. 9 Arizona State.
"My hope this weekend and moving forward is because of the television coverage and the timing of it, it's going to help the NCAA selection committee. It will give us a good look," Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. "A few years ago when we talked endlessly to have it or not, the biggest reason was to allow teams to get a few more wins that were on the bubble and showcase ourselves for seed in the NCAA tournament. We're really positioned well for that now with how things are structured."
As conference tournaments begin around the country, the Pac-12 is one of two — along with the SEC — with four teams ranked in the top 18 nationally. The last time the conference ended the season with four teams ranked in the final AP poll: 1981. Five times since 2001, the conference ended the season with just one ranked team, including Stanford last season.
Colorado is clearly the surprise of the four ranked teams. Colorado was picked to finished ninth in the preseason conference poll.
"It's always our goal to be better than anyone thinks we would be. I knew at the beginning of the season there was no way we would finish ninth," Colorado coach Linda Lappe said. "But I knew we had to stay healthy and get our young players better and acclimated to the college game and that's a huge reason we were able to finished fourth.
Increasing exposure and recognition nationally for Pac-12 women's hoops was one of Larry Scott's initiatives when he took over as conference commissioner. A big help in increasing that exposure was the development and launch this year of the Pac-12 Network, which regularly made games available on a national platform. Combining that bump in how many games are being seen with the teams doing their part, and the end result is more national attention on the Pac-12 than has been seen for quite some time.
"We certainly had a view and a belief that Pac-12 women's basketball was under leveraged and was not getting the respect nationally that it deserved," Scott said.
Along with separating itself from the men's tournament and getting out of Los Angeles where there was minimal interest, the tournament was bumped up by a week, giving it premier billing on the West Coast and more time for the NCAA selection committee to look over team resumes.
There won't be any debate about NCAA bids coming to Stanford, California, UCLA or Colorado. A Stanford-California matchup in the conference title game could determine a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and which team gets to stay on the West Coast with the regional in Spokane, Wash.
"We know we put ourselves in a pretty good position to get a really good seed in the NCAA tournament," California coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "We're focused on winning the Pac-12 tournament, that's important to us, and if that leads to a No. 1 seed it's pretty incredible that we're in that spot. But that only comes if we play pretty good basketball this weekend."
Washington could put itself back in the NCAA bubble discussion with a deep run, but a four-game losing streak to end the regular season likely ended the Huskies hopes of an at-large bid.
Then there is the rest of the field, none of which enter the tournament with more than eight conference victories and only Utah has a winning record.
"It's not like you have a No. 1 team and a No. 12 and there is a lot of space in between," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "It's compressed. There are a lot of good teams in there."
Moving to Seattle puts the tournament in a women's basketball hotbed, although just how strong the public response will be remains to be seen. The conference has partnered with Force 10 Hoops, the owners of the Seattle Storm, to operate the event. Coaches are thrilled to be playing where the games will be appreciated and not just an afterthought as they seemed to be in Los Angeles.
"I'm confident that it's going to be a lot better than it was in Los Angeles," Scott said. "How big and how strong remains to be seen."