No. 5 Oregon is the team to beat in the Pac-12 women’s basketball race.
The defending champion Ducks (11-1), who open the conference slate against Washington on Friday at Matthew Knight Arena (6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), will have to emerge from a crowded field of contenders during the 18-game regular-season marathon.
No. 6 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon State are the two primary challengers. No. 18 California pushed No. 1 UConn, and No. 22 Arizona State nearly upset No. 8 Baylor and No. 3 Louisville
The Pac-12 posted a 109-27 (.801) record in nonconference play, the highest winning percentage of any conference.
UCLA, (8-5, 1-0), Utah (12-0, 1-0), Arizona (11-1, 1-0) and Washington State (6-6, 1-0) — picked to finish sixth, eighth, 10th and 11th, respectively, in the preseason coaches poll — have each opened Pac-12 play with a win.
“It makes for a better conference when your teams that weren’t picked to do well are 10-0, 11-0 or 10-1. It helps all of us,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “I think that’s great and it shows the depth of the conference is as good as it has ever been. There are no gimmes.
“I think that’s why our conference has done so well in the NCAAs the last couple years, because you’ve got to bring it every night in conference play. There’s just no weak sisters.”
Oregon leads the NCAA in scoring (92.6 points per game), field-goal percentage (53.2), free-throw percentage (84.0) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.99).
Sabrina Ionescu leads the nation in assists (8.8 per game) and three-point shooting (55.6 percent). Ruthy Hebard leads the nation in field-goal percentage (74.1).
Graves challenged his team with six early-season road or neutral-court games, including an 87-79 defeat at Michigan State. The Ducks beat then-No. 4 Mississippi State 82-74 on Dec. 18 at Matthew Knight Arena.
“It definitely prepared us,” Hebard said. “All those really good teams got us awake and ready and moving, ready for the physicality of the Pac-12.”
Ionescu is the reigning Pac-12 player of the year and on the short list of national player of the year candidates once again.
Some of the other all-American candidates in the conference include Cal senior forward Kristine Anigwe (21.3 ppg, 13.7 rpg) and Stanford senior forward Alanna Smith (18.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
Oregon State’s Destiny Slocum, a Maryland transfer, leads the Beavers in scoring (14.2 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg).
Arizona’s Ari McDonald is averaging 24.2 points, which leads the conference. Washington State’s Borislava Hristova (23.2 ppg), Utah’s Megan Huff (19.8 ppg) and Washington’s Amber Melgoza (19.2 ppg) are also elite scorers.
Colorado’s Kennedy Leonard (7.2 apg), USC’s Minyon Moore (6.8 apg) and Utah’s Dru Gylten (6.3 apg) have their teams off to fast starts.
Ten of the 15 all-Pac-12 honorees from last season are back.
“We’re going to get everybody’s best. That comes with the territory,” Graves said. “But I think that’s good. It means we have to have extreme focus and preparation for every single game and play our best, or we know we’re going to get beat.
“In the long run, knowing you are the team to beat, I think makes you better.”