LAS VEGAS – During a lunch break at the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day, Tina Langley wistfully scanned a Park MGM conference room filled with coaching peers and a handful of the best players in the conference.
“There’s no words,” the Washington Husky coach said when asked about the impending demise of Pac-12 that’s losing 10 teams next year. “It’s a beautiful conference. It’s one that we’ve all watched for so many years and had such awe over. The academic excellence. The national championships. The elite student-athletes and coaches. It’s been such an honor to be in this conference. Just a ton of great respect and gratitude for this conference.”
It’s a sad farewell for the “Conference of Champions” as it lumbers toward an uncertain future.
Last year, the Pac-12 – one of the premier women’s basketball conferences in the country – sent a league-record-tying seven teams to the NCAA tournament and had six teams picked to the preseason AP Top 25 poll, with Washington State coming in at No. 24.
Last month’s ceremonial tipoff to the Pac-12 women’s basketball season began without commissioner George Kliavkoff, who is being sued along with the Pac-12 by Washington State and Oregon State for control of the conference’s assets, or any of the league’s executive board.
Without conference leadership on hand, it was left to Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, who has coached the Cardinal since 1985 and led them to 27 conference regular-season championships, 14 conference tournament titles and three national titles, to say what most conference loyalists were thinking.
“It’s heartbreaking,” VanDerveer said when asked to describe a “surreal” upcoming season. “This has been my whole life. I woke up when I heard about it, and I said I’m in a bad dream.”
Stanford is headed to the ACC next year with California. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will play in the Big 12 while Washington and Oregon are joining UCLA and USC in the Big Ten.
“This is a nightmare,” said VanDerveer, who wants to win one last Pac-12 title. “We are committed to this year being a great year. Our team’s theme is best year ever, and I think that that’s kind of what everyone wants. We want to make the very best of it, and we’re really thankful that we have such support in the Pac-12 from everyone.
“We play – we represent great universities, and we’re very proud of the success that we have, and we’re just going to make it the best year ever.”
VanDerveer has been a vocal critic of the Pac-12’s death while some coaches declined to publicly address the downfall of the 108-year-old conference.
“That’s not even a thought,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “My focus is this year, these great young women. … I’m so excited about that.
“You don’t even look ahead because the main thing is to win now and live in the present. Just excited about the talent we’re going to have, all the great players, the excitement, how there’s so much parity, and then just not really looking ahead because we’ve got to win now today.”
Barnes comments were echoed by a few coaches.
Arizona State coach Natasha Adair said: “The first thing we focus on is being in the Pac-12, right. This is a historical season, and we want to make sure we compete, that we put ourselves in a position to win a Pac-12 championship.”
However, it’s impossible to ignore the potential recruiting complications caused by conference realignment.
“Obviously in recruiting you have to talk about the realignment and what’s to come,” Adair said. “We really sold a vision of the school and the program (to recruits and) what their impact could be within our program. Down the road obviously we mentioned the realignment, but the focus is competing and winning in the Pac-12.”
Oregon State and Washington State have broader issues to solve.
The Pac-12’s so-called swan song is particularly painful for a surging WSU team that won its first conference tournament title and made its third straight trip to the NCAA tournament last season after five consecutive losing seasons.
“It’s a statement,” sixth-year WSU coach Kamie Ethridge said. “Get the right people in place and anything can happen. Clearly our team just got on a roll. … It was magical and just one step after another and played really well. Played probably as good as we could play and – were led by some really strong, strong players.
“Charlisse (Leger-Walker) had an amazing tournament and now I think it validates us in recruiting, validates us as a program. I don’t know that we have the biggest budget of anyone in the league. We don’t have the shiniest, sexiest stuff, but that doesn’t come into factor when you step on the court and play. Our kids played better than anyone else, and we won a championship.”