Late in their NCAA Tournament first-round game last week, opponents Portland State called a timeout to strategize in the face of a big Oregon lead. Duck coach Kelly Graves stepped up to starting forward Ruthy Hebard and leaned close to her ear, talking. Hebard cracked a smile.
Graves kept talking. Hebard nodded. Behind them, associate head coach Mark Campbell and assistant coaches Jodie Berry and Xavi Lopez huddled around a whiteboard, drawing, talking and gesturing. Then they stood, went to the bench where players were seated and waiting, and started breaking down the game plan. Graves and Hebard were still conferencing to the side.
So it is with Oregon basketball: there is a plan, but it is adjustable and decided upon by committee. And that approach has led the Duck program to unprecedented heights, as they have reached their third straight Elite 8 and vie for a Final Four spot tomorrow.
Foundation of trust
Graves, in his 30th season as a head coach, has had Berry with him for 17 years. At Gonzaga, prior to coming to Oregon, the two created an elite program. They know each other well.
“I’ve worked with Kelly longer than I’ve been married,” Berry said. “We’ve been through everything together: birth, death, weddings.”
The foundation of their mutual trust is transparency.
“The beauty of Kelly and I is we say it and we’re done, and we move on,” Berry said. “When you trust someone and aren’t afraid of their opinions, it’s awesome.”
Once Graves brought Berry aboard, it wasn’t long before the two began to operate as one.
“Jodie’s been with me for a long time, so she knows what we want,” Graves said. “I got thrown out of a game about 10 years ago at Gonzaga. It was for the conference championship.”
“I remember going into the locker room and watching the game on TV. I said, ‘they should call this right now, this is the play that should be run right now,’ and (Berry) was out there doing it. It was the same tempo, the same everything as if I would have been out there.”
Graves said he divides up the coaching duties between Berry and Campbell – who has been with the Ducks for five years – and Lopez equally.
“I don’t have all the answers, so I rely on them a lot. We have a good division of labor. ,” Graves said. “I let Mark handle a lot of the defense. It’s similar to football when you have an offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator. Jodie does a lot of the offense.”
The assistants appreciate the opportunity to have input.
“I think it’s really awesome because with Kelly, we always feel like we have a voice,” Berry said. “If we have something to interject, he wants us to interject it. We’re all part of the same team and if he wanted us to all think the way he does, we wouldn’t be here.”
“We all think differently, so we can all bring something different to the table. He’s always welcoming and we always feel like we have a voice.”
And those voices have plenty of discussions during game time.
“We’re all talking on the bench,” she said. “It might not look like we are, but the four of us are always in constant communication – what happened on that possession, defensively offensively, individual things – things like that. It’s an ongoing dialogue that happens.”
The result of their same-page operation is that some things happen automatically.
“There’s good synergy, and that’s important,” Graves said. “We don’t need to go over a game plan; it’s everybody together. We talk about, how do we want to defend this, how do we want to defend that. I trust them.”
Players appreciate that their input is valued, as well. Hebard said it is not uncommon in huddles for an assistant coach to suggest a play different from Graves’, and to see him run with it.
“It shows us all as players that he’s open,” Hebard said. “He treats us all as equals, and that’s really special.”
Player of the year candidate Sabrina Ionescu, who broke her own NCAA record last week with her 18th triple-double, appreciates that Graves values the opinions of herself and her teammates.
“He asks us what plays we want to run. He asks us how we feel in this position, what we want to do,” Ionescu said. “I think that just gives us the freedom to grow as basketball players and be able to be in those positions and not necessarily rely on a coach to tell us what to do, what play to run.”
“It’s not robotic at all. He gives us the green light to take whatever shots that are in range, we’re able to take and practice taking.”
It is a bond that has carried over to the athletes, which has made for a tightly-run program.
“One word is just trust. They give us a lot of freedom and they trust us not only on the court but off the court,” Ionescu said. “They treat us as regular people. I think that trust we have with them as coaches shows on the court.”
“I think having that trust between a player and a coach is very important. It’s almost family like. I think he’s like a father to a lot of us. Just having someone that we can look up to, talk to anything about, whether it’s basketball or whether it’s life, is something that’s really important to us.”
Since his Gonzaga days, Graves’ bench demeanor could be confusing to an outsider. One moment he is sitting with legs crossed – sometimes with his hands behind his head. The next minute he has jumped up to call out instructions.
Starting forward Satou Sabally said that approach flows from his confidence in the program, which athletes, in turn, have taken on.
“He finds a really good balance between being engaged and being calm at the right moments,” Sabally said. “He also trusts his staff. When he has to talk to one of us, our other coaches they call the next game play or the next defense. Their chemistry – the coaching staff is really strong and has a really strong bond – and they trust one another.”
“That’s also reflective on our team; we also have really strong bonds, and we trust each other. We just have fun. It’s a really good environment and you can see where that comes from in the coaching style. He takes the lead at the right moments, and he’s on our heads.”
Sabally said Graves is both demanding and affirming.
“He pushes me to my limits. He tells me what I’ve got to do, what I have to do,” Sabally said. “He always tells me that the sky is the limit. He’s positive and motivating.”
Hebard said she has already learned a lot from Graves.
“I’ve never played for a coach like him before,” she said. “That’s why I love him and I play so hard for him. He’s just a great, unique person.”
Standing in the way of an Oregon Final Four trip is top-seeded Mississippi State, as the two teams face off for the Portland regional crown at 11 a.m. PT tomorrow. Berry said coaches will focus on the game plan.
“I think that’s the beauty of this team is we don’t have to motivate anyone,” she said. “They’re all driven and focused and competitive – not just individually but collectively, for the good of the team.”