Women's basketball: Washington shoots for repeat Final Four run
On orders from Kelsey Plum, Mike Neighbors' Final Four ring sits in a box at his office.
After guiding the Huskies to their first NCAA tournament semifinals, the Washington women's basketball coach would sometimes wear the commemorative jewelry during recruiting trips in the summer to impress high-school recruits.
However, Plum felt it sent the wrong message to the team.
"She said take it off, and she was right," Neighbors said. "So I put it away, and you won't see me wear it again. That was last year's team, and it's time to move on.
"She is animated about that. I got a patch (from the Final Four), and she was like, 'Take that patch off.' I told her, you do realize there's going to be a banner in our gym (at Alaska Airlines Arena), and I can't do anything about that. She laughed and said, 'That one is OK.' But I can guarantee you, there has not been one second spent on looking back."
Instead, the Huskies are intent on building on the most successful postseason run in the history of the program. Heading into the 2016-17 season, they were picked third in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll.
It's their highest ranking since 2003-04.
Washington, which received two first-place votes and garnered 93 points, finished behind UCLA (116 points and eight first-place votes) and Stanford (110 points and two first-place votes) in the rankings.
"I'm not one of these people that dismisses this stuff, because I think they're important," said Neighbors, who signed a three-year contract that runs through 2022-23. He earned $410,000 last season, including a $50,000 bonus for UW's Final Four run.
"It means that we've earned some respect from people," Neighbors said. "But coaches are terrible at picking things. It doesn't mean we'll finish third, but we are excited and thankful. It's a small reward for years of hard work. We'll embrace it, but we won't focus on it."
The Huskies are banking on returning senior starters Plum, Chantel Osahor and Katie Collier, who could keep them on track for a third straight NCAA tournament appearance — and possibly another run at a national title.
"Now people expect us to go that far, and we expect it from ourselves, too," said Osahor, who set the UW season rebounding record with 417 last season. She's one of two returning Pac-12 players to average a double-double (10.1 points and 11.3 rebounds) in 2015-16.
"We just got to keep doing what we do," Osahor said. "Playing for each other and believing in each other."
Plum added: "Chantel said one time it can be a blessing and a curse to have some success and notoriety and stuff. The ability to keep each other accountable and humble through it all is what is going to be the key to go where we were last year."
With Plum breaking Washington's all-time scoring record (2,418 points last season), UW finished fifth in the Pac-12 at 11-7 and 26-11 — the most wins since 1990.
Washington also returns role players Deja Strother, Kelli Kingma, Mackenzie Wieburg, Hannah Johnson and Jenna Moser while bringing in a quartet of freshmen — GiGi Garcia, Mai-Loni Henson, Aarion McDonald and Amber Melgoza — who will have difficulty seeing playing time because the roster is loaded.
Plum, Osahor and Collier, who started all 37 games and led UW with 41 blocks last season, are slated to start alongside senior guard/forward Heather Corral, who missed the past two seasons with a knee injury.
"It's crazy competitive," Neighbors said. "Deja had a good offseason. Hannah Johnson, too. All of the kids have had moments where they deserve a look."
Washington hosts exhibitions against Central Washington (Oct. 29) and Concordia (Nov. 2) before the Nov. 11 season-opener against Eastern Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena in the Preseason WNIT.
The 16-team tournament includes Notre Dame, a perennial NCAA tournament title contender, and Missouri.
"We'll know a lot about ourselves after the WNIT," Plum said.
Junior guard Brianna Ruiz, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in January, is expected to return midseason.
Pac-12 women's basketball preseason coaches poll. First-place votes in parentheses.
1. UCLA 116 (8)
2. Stanford 110 (2)
3. Washington 93 (2)
4. Arizona State 89
5. Oregon State 81
6. California 71
7. Oregon 69
8. Utah 52
9. USC 44
10. WSU 31
11. Colorado 22
12. Arizona 14
This article was written by Percy Allen from Seattle Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.