Pac-10 preview: the University of Oregon

This is the third of a 10-part series previewing the Pac-10 basketball teams

When Paul Westhead took over the University of Oregon basketball program in 2009, he set it on fire. So excited were the Ducks at the energy and direction of their new coach that they went on a winning streak during pre-season, which included a 117-69 thrashing of Cal State Fullerton. Going into league play, they were 9-3.

But Oregon had trouble keeping that momentum, and sputtered a bit in Pac-10 play. They went 7-11 and ended up in a tie for sixth place. Then they lasted three rounds in the WNIT Tournament before losing to eventual champion Cal. After their Pac-10 Tournament appearance in March, guards Taylor Lilley and Nia Jackson accompanied Westhead to the press room, and talked about how their playing lives had changed. This is from a story I wrote on the game and press conference:

Jackson and Lilley, who spoke after the game, are probably the players who seem to have improved the most under Westhead. Lilley, a senior, didn’t make any all- Pac-10 Tournament last year, but seems destined to make one this weekend. Jackson has played all season with a passion that Oregon fans haven’t seen before. She acknowledged that her game has “changed a lot” in playing for her new coach.

“He has given me a lot of confidence,” Jackson said of Westhead. “He’s given a lot of confidence to the entire team.”

The Ducks were indeed a fired-up team last year, and from the sounds of practice reports this fall, they are just as enthusiastic now. Westhead reportedly has a number of exclamations and sayings in practice that inspire players on, like “Bango!” He is a motivator, no doubt, and his team loves him.

The question is, will this enthusiasm translate into a winning program?

Highly likely. And this season will give us the answer.

On the one hand the loss of Lilley – who played for the WNBA Phoenix Mercury last summer – and Micaela Cocks, is huge. Both were starters, and they were the first- and second-leading scorers, respectively.

But the inspired Jackson, and Amanda Johnson, weren’t far behind; each averaged double-digit scoring. Nicole Canepa and Victoria Kenyon followed with 8.8 and 7.1 point per game, respectively.

Oregon also has four solid freshman: forward/guard Deanna Weaver of Santa Clara, Calif.; forward Danielle Love of Everett, Wash.; guard Ariel Thomas of Sacramento, Calif.; and forward Chynna Miley of Atlanta, Geo.

The Ducks have seven players over six-feet tall, and another four are 5-foot-10 and above. They are also beginning the season injury-free. And for possible further inspiration the new McKnight Arena, which features the second-largest scoreboard in the NCAA, will open prior to the season.

The whole thing – minus the arena – reminds me of where UCLA Coach Nikki Caldwell was with her team at the end of her first season at the helm. Which I guess means Oregon will be going to the Big Dance next year?

We’ll see.