Tara VanDerveer, the Stanford women’s basketball coach, threw out an outlandish challenge to her peers during a banquet at the end of the Pac-12 Conference’s media day this fall.
“I basically said, ‘Hey, our goal is to have four teams at the Final Four,’” VanDerveer recalled recently.
The idea would seem audacious, if not ludicrous, in any NCAA sport, but especially in women’s basketball, which has long been ruled by teams east of the Rockies — most notably the one in the Connecticut backyard of ESPN. The last team from the Far West to win the title was VanDerveer’s Stanford squad in 1992.
Since then, UConn has captured 11 titles, Tennessee has claimed five, Baylor three and Notre Dame two. Lately, South Carolina and Maryland have outdone almost every team in the West, too.
But VanDerveer was on to something at that banquet. The sport’s map of power had tilted. For the first time, the Pac-12 has four teams in the top 10 of the Associated Press women’s basketball poll.
A member of the conference has occupied the top position every week this season, Stanford having supplanted Oregon, which lost to sixth-ranked Louisville last month. Oregon is No. 3, just behind undefeated UConn; Oregon State is No. 4; and UCLA is No. 10. A fifth conference team, Arizona, is ranked 18th, a spot behind Gonzaga (which plays in the West Coast Conference).
Stanford (9-0) will face a stern challenge Wednesday night: No. 23 Tennessee is traveling to the Cardinal’s Maples Pavilion.
Stanford has been highly competitive ever since VanDerveer arrived in Palo Alto, California, in 1985. But for years, the Cardinal faced little real competition within their conference and had to challenge themselves by regularly scheduling games against national powers like Tennessee and UConn. For 24 seasons, from 1988-89 to 2011-12, Stanford played in 11 Final Fours. No other West Coast women’s team made an appearance.
“There have been situations where I think people felt like it was Stanford and, you know, the little dwarves or something crazy like that,” VanDerveer said.
She never bought into that framing. And now reality has caught up to her faith in the conference.
“I don’t know that the players get into it that much,” VanDerveer said of the league’s ascent. “But I know I’ve been texting the UCLA coach, ‘Go Pac-12,’” she said, referring to Cori Close. “And Arizona and Washington and Oregon State and Oregon. Colorado. I’m kind of a Pac-12 cheerleader.”
VanDerveer thinks the shift began with greater exposure delivered by the Pac-12 Networks, the conference’s array of national and regional TV channels.
Mary Murphy, an analyst for the networks who coached at Wisconsin and Cal State-Hayward, said the exposure had an almost immediate effect on recruiting. She pointed out that several Pac-12 universities, including Arizona State and Oregon State, had improved their women’s athletic facilities since the networks launched in 2012.
VanDerveer said the West had always produced elite basketball players. “But a lot of the top talent would go East,” she added, citing Diana Taurasi, who won three NCAA titles after leaving Chino, California, for UConn 20 years ago, as well as Heidi and Heather Burge, twins from Southern California who led Virginia to three Final Fours in the early ’90s. “I think they went East because they felt like West Coast schools weren’t maybe competitive.”
That has been changing. Oregon’s fortunes turned on a dime when coach Kelly Graves was able to land Sabrina Ionescu, a dynamic 5-foot-11 guard who was considered one of the top three national recruits in 2016. The Ducks have gone 98-25 behind Ionescu, who surprised analysts and delighted her school by choosing to return for her senior season instead of entering the WNBA draft.
VanDerveer scored a coup of her own when Haley Jones, a freshman guard who was considered the top national prospect of her high school class, made an early commitment to Stanford last fall. Both players are from the Bay Area.
Pac-12 programs have begun to make recruiting inroads in other states, and even abroad. Utah, for example, has five Canadian players, two from Poland and one from Spain.
“You look at Oregon State,” Murphy said. “Their two best recruits this year, you know, 6-4 Taylor Jones out of Texas and Kennedy Brown, a freshman out of Kansas who is 6-6 and like this great, beautiful shooter.”
VanDerveer seems unconcerned that the ascendance of the conference has made her job more difficult. Over the past seven seasons, Pac-12 teams took a total of six spots in the women’s Final Four. Only two of those entries wore cardinal. Cal got there in 2013, Oregon State and Washington in 2016, and Oregon last March. This is the new, deeper Pac-12.
“People have said to me, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But hey, bring it on,” VanDerveer said. “We’re excited for that competition.”
To VanDerveer, this feels like the restoration of the natural order. When she came to Stanford — then in the Pacific West Conference — the women’s game was huge in California. “At the time, USC had Cheryl Miller,” VanDerveer said of the team that won the NCAA title in 1983 and ’84. UCLA, led by Ann Meyers, had been the national champion in 1978, when the sport was overseen by the AIAW.
“So,” VanDerveer said, “I really thought at that point, ‘This is where great basketball is.’”
Then her team won two championships, in 1990 and 1992, for a total of five titles by three West Coast schools in 15 seasons. After that came the drought (which is almost matched by the men’s teams of the West, who have not produced a national championship since Arizona’s in 1997).
Of course, VanDerveer, 66, would love for it to end with another Stanford title, 30 years after her first. But she is also looking to be part of something entirely new.
“It would be thrilling for our conference, whether it’s us or it’s another team,” she said, adding, “In some ways we’re just in the building stages.”