Oregon’s plan this season: step up the defense

Sabrina Ionescu and Lexi Bando celebrate their Pac-12 Tournament win over top-seeded Washington last March. Photo by Elaine Thompson/Associated Press.

The Oregon Ducks enter this season as over-achievers.

With a slate of newcomers last year, they were picked to finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12. But after a program-first trip to the Elite 8 in March, and in returning nearly every player, the Ducks find themselves ranked 11th in the AP preseason top 25 poll.

Ahead of schedule for a 2017 recruiting class that coach Kelly Graves said was one of his best ever? You bet. But the experienced coach still sees plenty of room for improvement.

“For us to be an elite team, we have to defend better,” Graves said.

He challenged his team to improve their defense, and they accepted that challenge. Since then, Oregon has spent most of their practice time working on it. But Graves knows that what he calls an “elite defense” doesn’t happen overnight.

“A great defensive culture takes time, and we’ll get better at it,” he said. “I like our versatility. We’re looking to try and trap a little bit more. We’re switching a little bit more on defense.”

The defensive concepts of trapping and switching translate best with the assistance of leadership and communication, and the Ducks have only four upperclasswomen this year: seniors Lexi Bando and Justine Hall and juniors Maite Cazorla and Oti Gildon.

Bando said associate coach Mark Campbell has been instrumental in teaching defensive schemes.

“Coach Mark is a great defensive coach,” Bando said. “We want to be known for our defense. We’re not the most athletic, but we can get tips and steals.”

Cazorla said defense is not the only thing on Oregon’s plate.

“We’re improving on defense, which is something we really need to work on more than offense,” she said. “I feel like we need to communicate. That’s one of our main points. (Also,) knowing what defense (opponents are) in.”

Graves said being able to switch defenses will help them become a more complete team. Last year the Ducks ranked 213th in scoring defense, 136th in three-point defense and 191st against opponent field goal percentage.

Defense will be the fuel for Oregon in their quest to be the last team standing in the NCAA tournament at the end of March.

“Obviously our goal is to win and to make it even farther than (last season), and it’s going to take some hard work,” Bando said. “We’ll see where we can go.”