Pac-12 preview: The University of Oregon

This is the first in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.

The Oregon Ducks’ 2015-2016 season was a true odyssey.

They were projected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, where they had lived for the last decade, despite the decorated resume of then-second-year coach Kelly Graves. But Oregon hit the ground running, and kept going. They knocked off then-ranked North Carolina, and remained undefeated until the first weekend in January, when they lost to UCLA. They broke the program record for wins in a season, and star senior forward Jillian Alleyne broke school record after school record. The Ducks were on course to win a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Then in late February, the unthinkable happened: Alleyne tore her ACL. Oregon lost their last two games, made a first-round exit in the Pac-12 Tournament, and were out of NCAA contention. But there was more.

The Ducks made it to the fifth round – the Final Four of the WNIT – before falling to eventual champion South Dakota.

So what does Graves do for an encore this year? Get one of the top recruiting classes in the country.

Fourth-ranked Sabrina Ionescu topped out Oregon’s list in mid-June with her late commitment. She joined six other powerhouse freshmen to give the school the first or third-best recruiting class in the country, depending on the source. Having that many newcomers on a roster is normally a daunting prospect, but Graves is OK with it, in part because his front court suddenly looks like a Redwood forest.

Forwards Sierra Campisano, Ruthy Hebard, Mallory McGwire and Lydia Giomi are 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 6-6, respectively. The guards aren’t exactly short, either: Jayde Woods is 6-1, and Morgan Yaeger and Ionescu are 5-9 and 5-10.

“We’re doing a lot of teaching and learning now, but collectively, this is a tremendous group,” Graves said. “The size and athletic ability of the freshmen is amazing.”

With Graves’ talents in bringing things together rapidly, the Ducks may be poised to get their momentum back sooner rather than later. The loss of Alleyne (19 points, 13.6 rebounds per game) and Lexi Petersen (13.4 points per game) is huge, but three other starters return. Maite Cazorla, a sophomore from Spain, dazzled arrival and averaged 11.7 points per game. Jacinta Vandenberg, a 6-5 Australian forward, was critical for Oregon in her first season last year, and averaged 6.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Guard Lexi Bando (11.7 points per game) has earned unusually high praise from Graves.

“Bando is the best shooter I’ve ever coached,” he said.

No longer a newcomer to the Ducks, Graves is feeling more like it’s his program.

“This is the team we’ve really been looking forward to coaching,” he said. “A while back, my staff and I set out sights on the 2016 recruiting class. We knew this would be the class that would define our program.”

“As a staff and as a program, this is a year we’re all very excited about.”

Oregon’s preconference schedule will be a true test, as they take on Michigan State and Mississippi State in November and Clemson and Ole Miss in December before beginning Pac-12 play Dec. 30 at home, against Washington.