Pac-10 preview: The Oregon schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. We begin today with profiles of the University of Oregon Ducks and Oregon State University Beavers of the Pacific 10 Conference.

Unfortunately for me, the state of Oregon within the Pac-10 is no-woman’s land – a basketball dead zone. Neither the UO or OSU have fielded women’s teams that have finished anywhere near the top of the conference for many years. Last year, the Ducks were 14-17 and 7th in the conference; the Beavers were 8th with a 12-19 record.

This saddens me because I grew up watching Oregon women’s basketball. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s because my dad took me to those games that I got interested, and eventually obsessed, with basketball.

And who was my first basketball hero? None other than former Oregon All-American and current coach Bev Smith. So it’s with even more sadness that I report that Smith, with an overall record of 114-100, may be on the hot seat this year, as it’s the last year of her contract. Things have got to get better in the state of Oregon for women’s basketball, and soon.

The discontent is palpable. My former teacher and friend of almost three decades has been a Ducks season ticket holder for years. She said that this year, for the first time, several long-time season ticket holders she knows have opted not to renew their seats.

“They say they can’t do it anymore,” Teach said. “It’s sad.”

Teach added that there is much speculation among fans that this will be Smith’s last year if the team doesn’t show improvement. Some fans, she said, are ready for a change.

But things weren’t always this grim. In fact, Smith’s tenure started out brilliantly. She took the job in 2001, after the UO moved to replace controversial coach Jody Runge. Smith kicked an outspoken player off the team in December. In March, a Duck team featuring current New York Liberty forward Cathrine Kraayeveld ended the season rolling around in a joyful pile on the floor, the winners of the WNIT Tournament.

There was also a brief moment of joy in 2005 when the Ducks made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament – and in Seattle, no less, where I got to see them play.

Since then, Smith has been through a few assistant coaches and a few more players. Perhaps one of the most significant losses in the latter column came just last spring, in Smith’s mysterious decision to disallow starting point guard Tamika Nurse to return for her senior year ( http://media.www.dailyemerald.com/media/storage/paper859/news/2008/04/23/Sports/Under.Scrutiny-3343002.shtml ).

As a result of that move, and the loss of senior guard Kaela Chapdelaine, the Ducks are left with three returning starters: Taylor Lilley, Ellie Manou and Nicole Canepa. Five bench players also return, and the team has four new freshmen – two from California, one from Washington state and one from Las Vegas. The only senior on the team is Rita Kollo, who is redshirting the year.

Up the road at Oregon State, fourth-year coach LaVonda Wagner is trying to put together a winning team to trump the University’s long time tradition of mediocrity. She took over the program after former head coach Judy Spoelstra’s contract wasn’t renewed after nine seasons, and so far Wagner has a 37-53 overall record. Yet, the language in the OSU team prospectus is extremely positive and optimistic. I like that.

The Beavers point to what they term “a strong nucleus of returning players,” and indeed, nine players have come back this year. These seniors also represent the first class Wagner has seen through all four years. The three newcomers are: Anita Burdick, a junior college transfer from the College of Southern Idaho; Brittany Kennedy, from basketball powerhouse Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, WA; and Kirsten Tilleman, from Bozeman, MT.

The team’s three seniors – Brittney Davis, Tiffany Ducker and Mercedes Fox-Griffin – have “a lot of experience and are hungry for success,” according to Wagner. Fox-Griffin has started all three years at OSU.

Oregon has a fairly straightforward schedule, beginning Nov. 2 with a home game against Northwest Christian University. The first real challenges for the Ducks will come in December, when they face Georgia Tech, Marquette and Baylor in the same week.

The Beavers also begin at home, and travel to the Bahamas for a tournament on Thanksgiving weekend. In December, they face UNLV and UC-Irvine. Pac-10 teams begin conference play Friday, Jan. 2.

I sincerely hope Smith can begin to turn things around and do what I wanted her to do from the start, and return Oregon to its glory days of all-stars and playoffs. If she doesn’t, it would certainly be sad to see her lose a job at her own alma mater.

Wagner has always seemed sincere and likewise, I hope she can start to pull things together in Corvallis. She should be hitting her stride this year if she’s doing things correctly.

I want to see women’s collegiate basketball in the state of Oregon be great again. I am tired of the featured sports of my home state being football and men’s basketball. As a graduate of Oregon, I say: let’s go Ducks and Beavers.

Please.

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