In recent years, the Pac-12 Conference has not gained much respect around the country in women's basketball.
Five years in a row, the Pac-12 (or Pac-10, as it was known before 2011) has received the fewest NCAA Tournament bids among the six major conferences. Last year, only Stanford and California got in.
Pac-12 coaches knew going into this year that the only way to earn that respect and get more teams into the NCAA field was to beat top-notch opponents in other conferences and make the whole nation look west. So far, they've done that.
"It's a whole slew of programs that are not just talking about it, they're backing it up with their play," UCLA coach Cori Close said during Tuesdays' media conference call. "Nationally people have to take notice. The biggest way we can toot our horn is to do it on the court. We're backing our words up with our actions."
Stanford, which has dominated the conference for years, made an early splash by knocking off defending national champion and top-ranked Baylor. That ended Baylor's 42-game win streak and vaulted the Cardinal to No. 1 in the nation.
Stanford has been the one team in the conference that has annually been considered elite, however, so the Pac-12 needed others to step up, too.
Cal (8-1) is No. 8 in the country. The Bears have lost at No. 4 Duke, but have quality wins against Georgetown and Old Dominion.
Close's Bruins (7-1) are No. 12 this week, with their only loss coming to No. 5 Notre Dame. The Bruins have already defeated two Top-20 teams -- No. 18 Oklahoma and No. 20 Texas -- on the road. They also won at St. John's, which opened the year at No. 14.
Then came last week, when Colorado upset No. 8 Louisville on Friday and Washington State (3-5) stunned then-No. 20 Ohio State. (The Cougars did get routed at Louisville, 75-39, on Tuesday night, however).
Beating Louisville vaulted the Buffs to No. 25 in the national rankings, giving the Pac-12 yet another team in the national spotlight. CU is one of just four teams in the country to boast an undefeated record and a win against a top-10 team (Stanford, Connecticut and Duke are the others).
Utah (8-1) is also off to a great start that includes a nice win against Michigan and nine Pac-12 teams entered this week with winning records.
"It's very exciting how well our conference is doing," said Arizona State coach Charlie Turner Thorne, whose team is 6-4 despite returning no starters from last year. "We all knew it would be much improved from last year and that's showing now."
The conference hasn't had more than three NCAA Tournament teams since getting four in 2007. In the past two years combined, the Pac-12 has received just five NCAA bids. The Atlantic Coast Conference is next lowest, with 10 bids in those two years.
That's why having four teams in this week's Top-25 rankings -- including UCLA, Stanford and Cal ranking among the top six in RPI (ratings percentage index) -- is a big deal.
Washington State coach June Daugherty believes there will be five or six Pac-12 teams in the rankings by season's end and said it's the strongest preseason showing she's seen from the conference in five years.
Washington coach Kevin McGuff, who spent nine years at Xavier (located in Cincinnati) before taking over the Huskies last season, said the Pac-12 hasn't made a good enough impression on the East over the years, but that is changing.
"I think at the end of this year you're going to see a different situation because people are scheduling aggressively and we're winning those games," he said.
Of course, there's a long way to go between now and the NCAA Tournament selections are made, but so far, the Pac-12 has done exactly what it has needed to do.
"The strength of the league overall means that everybody's résumé looks better come March," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "It'll be interesting to see how it plays out in terms of who upsets who (in conference play). But I think there's no question the strength (that Pac-12 teams) are showing in non-conference helps everybody because there's just a general level of respect for the competition we're playing against night in and night out."
Colorado senior guard Chucky Jeffery received another national honor on Tuesday. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association named Jeffery as the Ann Meyers Drysdale National Player of the Week. On Monday, Jeffery was named as the national player of the week by ESPN and was also named as the Pac-12 player of the week. ... The website realtimerpi.com, which has CU's RPI at No. 18, predicts the Buffs to finish 22-7, 11-7 in the conference. That site also ranks CU at No. 101 in strength of schedule.
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