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Pac-12 preview: the University of Oregon

This is the eighth of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

As the Oregon Ducks enter the third season of the Paul Westhead era, they look to recapture some of the momentum that propelled them in the fall of 2009, when the longtime coach first took over. To do it, they’ll need to utilize every single player, including five newcomers.

In 2010-2011 the Ducks didn’t have a very strong pre-season schedule, so they began the year with a 9-2 record. Once they commenced Pac-10 Conference play, the season began to skid out of control. In the month of February they won only one game, on Feb. 24, and it was their last victory of the year. Oregon finished with a 13-17 overall and 4-14 conference record.

The Ducks’ top three scorers have returned. Senior guard Nia Jackson (17 ppg) lead the conference in scoring last year before an early February injury ended her season. Amanda Johnson, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, averaged 15.9 ppg and started every game. Sophomore guard Ariel Thomas put up 8 ppg, and was a starter by the end of the season. Deanna Weaver, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward (6.6 ppg) and Jasmine Holliday (6.8 ppg), a 6-foot guard/forward, also return. But most of the Oregon bench was lost to graduation.

Gone is starter Tatianna Thomas and seven bench players – four of whom had provided some depth for the team: Kristi Fallin (7 ppg), Ashley Buis (5.7 ppg), Victoria Kenyon (5.1 ppg) and Nicole Canepa (5 ppg).

Westhead is known for his preference for the running game, and he commented to the media a few weeks ago that this year the Ducks would be running faster than ever. Maybe it’s because they have five freshmen.

Top frosh include Lexi Petersen, a high-scoring, high-ranking guard/forward from Seattle; Janitah Iamaleava, a 6-foot-2 ranked center from Carson, Calif.; and Jordan Loera, a highly-ranked guard from Moses Lake, Wash. Other newcomers are Amanda Delgado, a Las Vegas, Nev. guard and Megan Carpenter, a 6-foot-4 center from Longmont, Colo.

Besides the player changes, Oregon also saw a change in assistant coaches last spring, when Kai Felton left to take the same position at Cal. Replacing her is Shandrika Lee, who assistant coached at Army in West Point, and Cal Poly. Other Duck assistants include Keila Whittington, who arrived with Westhead in 2009, and Dan Muscatell, who has coached for six years under three different Oregon coaches.

For whatever reason, it seems like every time an older male takes a job coaching a women’s basketball team, the general public goes ape. Such was the case when Westhead was hired, and to be sure, he is a positive presence who is appreciated by players and staff. The question is, can he guide the Ducks to sustain momentum through the end of the season?

During these last two years, Oregon has fallen off as the season has progressed – especially last year. Keeping athletes learning, pumped up and motivated is no small feat, but a successful head coach must be able to do all of that to win. Hopefully the third year is a charm for Westhead and the Ducks, who have grown accustomed to playing in luxurious Knight Arena.

The other key to success this year will be staying healthy, as the Ducks have sometimes been bitten by the injury bug at crucial points.

Oregon’s pre-season opponents include Cal Poly, Illinois, Portland State, Weber State, UC Irvine, Fresno State and Cal State Northridge. They open conference play Dec. 29 at home against Washington State.

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