How tough is it to compete as a women’s basketball team in the Pac-12 Conference?
The Arizona State women won 22 games last season, made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and begin a new season as the No. 23-ranked team in the country. And they return all of their core players for the 2018-19 season, including the team’s leading scorer and most prolific three-point shooter.
But the Sun Devils have been picked in both preseason polls to finish in fifth place in the Pac-12. That’s how hard it is to get any love when you’re playing in arguably the most challenging conference in the country.
There are four other preseason top-25 teams in the PAC-12, including defending national champion Oregon, which comes into the season ranked No. 3. The others include No. 7 Stanford, No. 8 Oregon State, and No. 24 California. Oregon, Oregon State, and UCLA were among last season’s Elite Eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
But that sort of challenge is getting to be a commonplace problem for ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne. This is the third straight year that the PAC-12 has been home to five teams ranked in the preseason polls.
Turner Thorne, who is beginning her 22nd season directing the Sun Devil program, knows how to navigate the rough waters of the Pac-12 Conference. Her teams have twice won a conference championship and she has been named Pac-12 Coach of the Year as many times. And her resume includes two Sweet Sixteen appearances and two trips to the Elite Eight.
The 24-year coaching veteran knows a good team when she sees it. And she likes what she sees this year.
ASU is returning its starting guards, juniors Reili Richardson and Robbi Ryan, and seniors Kianna Ibis, Courtney Ekmark, and Charnea Johnson-Chapman bring a wealth of experience and leadership to this year’s squad. This team, says Turner Thorne, is as deep and talented as any she’s had “in a long time.”
Ibis led the team last season in scoring (13 pts/game), Ekmark was tops in three-point shooting (.374), and Johnson-Chapman had the team’s best shooting percentage (.549).
Add to that four freshmen that Turner Thorne says could provide some immediate help — Taya Hanson, Jamie Loera, Iris Mbulito, Jayde Van Hyfte — and you have the ingredients for a squad that could make it deep into the post-season. If this year’s squad earns a trip to the NCAA Tournament, it will be the sixth straight time, which will set a school record.
ASU is taking a page from the entertainment industry, where they build interest for a new show by leading into it with one that already has an established audience, hoping some of those viewers will stick around. In this case, the Sun Devils’ men’s team will open its season next Tuesday against Cal State Fullerton at Wells Fargo Arena. That game will start at 6 p.m. and the women’s opener against Incarnate Word will follow at 8:30.
The women will hope to draw some of those rabid ASU fans from the men’s game, which last year filled the 14,000-seat arena with regularity, while the women averaged just over 2,700.
If Turner Thorne is right about the kind of team she has this season, the fans that stay for the second game will be glad they did.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)