Pac-12 preview: the University of Oregon

This is the sixth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

It’s been a long haul for Oregon basketball the last 11 years. Since a 2002 WNIT win in former coach Bev Smith’s first year, the program has languished in under-achievement. They hit a low in 2012-2013, recording the fewest wins in Duck basketball history under Paul Westhead, whose contract wasn’t renewed last spring.

It is a dream scenario for Oregon fans that the coach hired to take the reins of the program was Kelly Graves, who turned Gonzaga from a fledgling squad to into a national powerhouse. In 14 years, Graves guided the Bulldogs to ten straight West Coast Conference Championships, eight consecutive 20-plus win seasons and numerous NCAA Tournament bids, for an overall record of 317-176.

Oregon athletics officials said they had sought Graves from the beginning. So established is Graves as basketball coaching royalty that UO athletics director Rob Mullens declared that the school was “honored” to have him as the Ducks’ coach.

Graves’ approach in the first few weeks of practice is a graceful balance of optimism and realism.

“We have a lot of challenges, and a lot of work to do,” he said.

Primary among them is creating a defense, as Oregon was ranked last among Division I schools in that category last season. Graves is known for defensive teams, but he quickly realized with the Ducks that they’d never run a basic defensive shell drill in practice.

“My system is different from their old system, which was that each player had a niche, or specialized roles,” Graves said. “We’re trying to teach the whole player to every player, so they can do multiple things on court.”

Despite the learning curve, Graves is enjoying himself. He also sees potential.

“It’s been a challenge, but I really like my team,” he said. “We’re going to get better throughout the year.”

Oregon graduated two starters last year, but three of their top four scorers return: junior forward Jillian Alleyne (21.4 points, 16.2 rebounds per game), sophomore guard Chrishae Rowe (21.6 points, 6.6 rebounds per game) and senior guard Katelyn Loper (13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds per game).

A bright spot for the Ducks is that junior guard Lexi Petersen (10.2 points per game) is back after tearing her ACL early last season. So is junior guard Jordan Loera, who also missed last year after sustaining a knee injury in training camp.

Newcomers include freshman Tatum Neubert, a forward from Colorado who averaged 22.7 points per game as a high school senior; freshman guard Lexi Bando – a high-scoring Eugene native; and France native Marie Berthel, who is a walk-on that current players noticed during open gym.

Other returning bench players will have to step up, as none averaged more than 2.7 points per game last year. Graves is taking it in stride, as he’s been here before.

“At Gonzaga we had sell-out crowds for years, but that wasn’t always the case,” he said. “There were maybe 50 people in the audience when I first started. There were nights when I didn’t even want to go.”

Graves is keenly aware of the Oregon basketball tradition, which meant raucous, full arenas in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Under the last few years of Westhead’s tenure, attendance at Duck games has fallen considerably.

“They used to come,” he said of the fans. “We can build up the crowds to what we used to have.”

Part of Graves’ confidence comes from the three people on his coaching staff. Jodie Berry was his assistant at Gonzaga for 11 seasons before following him to Oregon. Nicole Powell also followed him after spending her first year as his assistant with the Bulldogs. She is an active WNBA player. Mark Campbell is new to the Ducks, after spending the last four years at Oregon State, where he helped coach Scott Rueck build a strong program from scratch.

“I have an amazing staff,” Graves said.

He is also buoyed by the facilities, which include a new arena and numerous amenities, and the school itself.

“The University of Oregon has everything: facilities, support, academics,” Graves said. “The ‘O’ brand is the most powerful brand in college athletics right now. This was the only place I would have left Gonzaga for.”

Graves said he loved his time in Eastern Washington, but had felt lately that he was ready for a new challenge. The opportunity at Oregon came “at just the right time.”

“I’m excited about this,” he said. “Friends keep asking me how I like it, and I tell them, ‘I love it!’ There’s a really cool vibe on campus, and in the community.”

The Ducks will face North Carolina, Central Michigan, American and Navy in pre-conference play. They begin Pac-12 play on the road Jan. 3, as they face USC.