WNIT begins today

USA Today named the Pacific-12 one of the losers on Selection Sunday for sending merely six teams to the NCAA tournament, only one of which seeded higher than #4. The Pac-12’s bubble teams — UCLA and Oregon State — play today in the WNIT.

UCLA vs. UC Irvine

UC Irvine
Big West automatic bid
NET: 136
Neutral floors: 3-1
Best win: 119 Illinois St.
Worst loss: 195 Grand Canyon

The Anteaters received an automatic bid as the highest-placing Big West team (that isn’t the tournament champion Hawaii). My friend Justin Wilson was an assistant coach at Pacific when I started loitering there, and most recently at UC Irvine. Coach Wilson is gone, so there goes my last link to UCI. I wrote to Cal Poly coach Mimnaugh a few weeks ago, then learned the Mustangs were 3-22, signaling the right time for Mimnaugh to retire after 25 years in paradise (Seriously, San Luis Obispo is one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever visited. It’s a little college town hidden in the valley between two mountains, and it’s kept some bohemian character despite the modernization of its downtown.).

The only friends I have left in the Big West are on the coaching staff at UC Davis, which feels odd. Years ago, while the Big West preseason media poll was circulating, one of my coaching friends asked her media relations fellow if I received a ballot. “He knows more about this conference than anybody,” she said, and that might’ve been true… 13 or 14 years ago.

UCLA
Pac-12 automatic bid
NET: 41
Neutral floors: 2-4
Best win: 19 Arizona
Worst loss: 102 Kent State

It was a season of what-could-have-been for the Bruins, who lost around 100 player games to injury and illness (the total was 70 at the end of November, so I reckon 100 is a conservative estimate), and had to cancel one game for not having five healthy bodies. UCLA has eight seniors or graduate students on their roster, an exceptional amount of experience. During the Pac-12 championship tournament, Coach Close was talking about finally getting to coach her team recently, rather than struggle to keep the ship afloat.

Pay attention to: Forward Ilmar’l Thomas.

Two doubles in February. Big, graceful and smart (among forwards, 2nd in the conference in assist-to-turnover rate). When I saw Thomas with Sacred Heart Cathedral HS, I said ‘wow, can we get her’, to which Coach replied she’s already committed to Cincinnati. Cincinnati?! She looked like a player who could’ve gone wherever she liked, and she opted for Cincinnati. The story goes that she decided as an upperclassman that she wanted to compete with the strongest competitors, which brought her back to California. Thank goodness for that.

Oregon State vs. Long Beach State

Long Beach State
Big West at large
NET: 130
Neutral floors: 2-1
Best win: 61 Rhode Island
Worst loss: 259 Cal State Northridge

Like I said, I’ve become a stranger to the Big West (LBSU was one of my favorite stops, while their coach was a record-setting guard for UCLA; and their gym is architectured, strikingly, as a pyramid, ). I don’t know anything about this Long Beach St. team. They lost at Oregon in December while Oregon was without Nyara Sabally.

Oregon State
NET: 53
Neutral floors: 3-3
Best win: 12 Oregon
Worst loss: 47 Arizona St.

The Beavers lost 13 games this season, and 12 of those losses were to teams in the NCAA tournament. Oregon St. lost three of four at the end, and that was while seven teams were jockeying for 3rd and 4th places, and that sweet first-round bye. The Pac-12 is brutal. Say you’ve got a 20-game in-conference schedule, with four against last season’s national finalists. No one will hate you for losing those, but to reach .500, you’ve gotta go 8-4. The Beavers will be as tough as usual next year; four starters (one freshman on the all-conference first team) return.

Pay attention to: Forward Jelena Mitrovic.

I wrote one year ago: My favorite basketball players are oddballs, the top-of-the-circle distributing post players. Conventionally, the big people are placed nearest the basket because they’re closest to the goal vertically. But in my view, if you’ve got a tall person who can pass the ball, put them near the middle of the court where they can see everyone else moving.

The best example of this type was ill-fated 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school because every college in the nation wanted him. Ralph’s problem was that in high school, he was still encouraged to play like a growing boy, but in college and the NBA, they wanted him to play like a guy who’s 7-foot-4. Someone hit the 88-inch nail on the head when he said: “Ralph is a 6-foot-2 guard in a 7-foot-4 post player’s body”.

These days there are two such players in the region (U San Francisco has one in forward Lucija Kostic). Oregon State has a girl who’s 6-foot-9, and her greatest skill is passing: Jelena Mitrovic.

I wrote that a year ago, and what puzzles me now is that I saw Mitrovic four or five times this season, and not once did she remind me why I thought so highly of her passing ability.