Oregon is the favorite to win the 2019-20 national championship, but the Ducks might not even win their conference title. That's how good the Pac-12 is expected to be at the top this season. And the league might not just be good -- it could be historic. The Pac-12 could be the first conference to have three teams as No. 1 seeds in the women's NCAA tournament.
In espnW's preseason bracketology, Oregon and Stanford are on the top line, and Oregon State is a projected No. 2 seed. UCLA checks in as a projected No. 3 seed and Arizona State is a No. 5. Even if it doesn't make history, the Pac-12 should be the nation's top conference in 2020.
While one conference has never had three No. 1 seeds in women's NCAA basketball, it has occurred twice in men's tournament history. In 2009, Louisville, Pittsburgh and UConn from the old Big East each earned top seeds. And just last season, Virginia, UNC and Duke were all No. 1 seeds out of the ACC.
Three times since the birth of the women's NCAA tournament in 1982 have there been two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed from the same conference. It happened most recently in 2007, when Duke and North Carolina of the ACC earned No. 1 seeds and Maryland was a No. 2 (the Terrapins moved from the ACC to the Big Ten for the 2014-15 season). The same three teams were also lined up that way in 2006, and it was No. 2 seed Maryland that beat No. 1 Duke to win the national championship. In 1991, the SEC's Tennessee and Georgia were on the top line and LSU earned a No. 2 seed at a time when the tournament consisted of 48 teams.
That 2007 season is also the closest any league has come to three No. 1 seeds. Maryland was sixth in the RPI prior to tournament selection, played the nation's fourth-toughest schedule and didn't lose a nonconference game that season. But a combined 0-4 record against the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, and better résumés from Tennessee and UConn were too much to overcome.
That is exactly what each of the Pac-12 contenders for top seeds this year will have to avoid: losing too many games to the other league favorites. Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford each play each other twice in the regular season. Going 0-4 like that Terrapins team would be an undoing. And just playing that many games against one another makes it all the more difficult to get three No. 1 seeds. Someone has to lose, and every loss is one step further away from a No. 1 seed. So dominant nonconference seasons are a must, and avoiding upsets within the Pac-12 is also essential.
After that, it also comes down to which other teams are in the running for No. 1 seeds. Oregon has a firsthand opportunity to diminish UConn's hopes of returning to a No. 1 seed when the two play in Storrs in early February. The Huskies are a projected top seed right now, but that comes with an asterisk: If the NCAA doesn't grant Tennessee transfer Evina Westbrook a waiver to play immediately, UConn's chances of negotiating its typically tough nonconference schedule -- which also includes Notre Dame, Baylor and South Carolina -- are greatly diminished. Remember, the Huskies didn't beat either Baylor or Louisville last season, and that cost them a No. 1 seed. A similar scenario would open the door for a potential third Pac-12 team on the top line.
Other factors at play include someone pulling an upset or two over Maryland in the Big Ten, and for South Carolina, Texas A&M and Mississippi State to hand each other some losses in the SEC.
Oregon State, with a weaker nonconference schedule than Oregon or Stanford, can't afford a loss and probably needs to look dominant in the process. A trip to Miami in late November, a neutral-site game against BYU, and possible games against either DePaul or Missouri State in the Preseason WNIT are the toughest opponents on the Beavers' schedule before conference play begins. The RPI and strength of schedule metrics might not look No. 1 seed-worthy at that point, which makes an eight-day stretch in January -- Oregon State hosts Stanford and plays Oregon twice -- the defining week of the Beavers' regular season. As possibly the best team Scott Rueck has ever had in Corvallis, this would be the group to survive a stretch like that. Even going 2-1 in those games would be a huge boost and likely is necessary for a top seed.
UCLA could also challenge for the Pac-12 crown, and it's notable that Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford each play the Bruins just once. That will be another scheduling advantage for the top teams in a league that projects to have six overall in the NCAA tournament field but has some struggling programs in the bottom half. Stanford has the added benefit of facing the Arizona schools -- the league's other two predicted tournament teams -- only once. If the Cardinal can take care of the likes of Texas, Tennessee, Ohio State and Gonzaga in the nonconference and then loses only once each to Oregon and Oregon State, Stanford would be in good position for its first No. 1 seed since 2013.
The Pac-12 sent two teams to the Final Four and three to the Elite Eight in 2016, and it was the No. 1 RPI conference in 2017, but the league has never seen a season with as much anticipation or expectation as this one. History could be made come March, but even if it isn't, more eyes will be on Pac-12 basketball than ever before.