Last year, the Pacific 10 Conference women's basketball tournament was expected to be a four-day coronation for top-seeded Stanford, which had gone undefeated in regular-season conference play and was ranked second in the nation.
It was a coronation, all right. Stanford was royally crowned by Arizona State in the title game, 70-63.
This season, Stanford (23-4) is, again, top-seeded and the favorite.
But even more teams think they can do what Arizona State did in 2002.
"The conference is so balanced that anybody can win this thing," USC Coach Chris Gobrecht said.
Well, maybe not anybody. The four teams that open the tournament today -- USC, Arizona State, California and Washington State -- have the hardest trek to the title. The winners of the first-round games will find Stanford and Arizona, the top-seeded teams, well rested and waiting.
That didn't seem to discourage Washington State Coach Sherri Murrell, whose team has struggled through a 2-25 season. Two of the Cougars' worst games were against USC, which won by a combined 97 points.
"People on the outside may think we may not want to play but we want to redeem ourselves against USC," Murrell said. "It's a great situation for us -- we can be a spoiler. I've never sensed [the team] wanted to give up on the season. They've been through a lot and the rewards were small. But we're not ready for season to be over."
Like Washington State and Cal, the 13-16 Trojans can qualify for postseason play beyond this weekend only by winning the conference tournament. But an 87-44 victory over Oregon State in the regular season finale has left Gobrecht optimistic.
"I feel we're in a good mind-set," she said. "We have tried to realize that [in the tournament] you can rewrite your future. You've figured out your regrets, what made us good. I think they are tuned in, that they realize the tournament is about who gets on a roll."
USC and Washington State, seventh- and 10th-seeded, open the tournament here in the HP Pavilion at 6:30 p.m. Eighth-seeded Arizona State (15-12) and ninth-seeded Cal (9-18) will follow about 25 minutes after the first game.
Fourth-seeded UCLA (17-10) plays fifth-seeded Oregon (12-15) at 7:15 Saturday night.
UCLA guards Nikki Blue and Michelle Greco, and USC forward Ebony Hoffman were named to the All-Pacific 10 team Thursday.
It was the second selection for Greco, a senior, and Hoffman, a junior. Greco leads the conference in scoring at 19.2 points, and steals at 2.8. Hoffman leads the Trojans in scoring at 16.1, and rebounding at 9.4.
Blue was also named to the conference's all-freshman team. She averaged 16.3 points and 3.4 assists.
The other All-Pac-10 selections: Leilani Estavan, Oregon State; Giuliana Mendiola and Loree Payne, Washington; Shawntinice Polk and Dee-Dee Wheeler, Arizona; Nicole Powell and Kelley Suminski, Stanford.
Mendiola, a junior, was named the Pac-10 player of the year.
The former Lake Forest El Toro High standout averaged 17.3 points and 5.41 assists.
Polk, who averaged 17.9 points and 10.8 rebounds, was named freshman of the year, and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer was voted coach of the year.
USC guard Rometra Craig earned honorable mention on the All-Pac-10 team.