Pac-12 preview: the University of Oregon

This is the first in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

The Oregon team that finished the 2016-2017 season was a dangerous one. They upset Temple, Duke and Maryland en route to reaching the first Elite 8 in program history, before finally reaching a road block in top-seeded Connecticut.

The only thing scarier than that is the Duck squad that is going into this season: they return all five starters and their top eight scorers from last year. What’s more, they also add a second consecutive stellar freshman class. A preseason poll this week tabbed Oregon to finish second in the Pac-12.

Coach Kelly Graves said that their new depth has already made a difference.

“There is competition at every position, which makes for some intense practices,” he said. “We could sustain an injury and be OK for the day.”

Graves praised his four freshmen, whom he called “awesome.”

“It’s crazy how good they are,” he said.

At the same time, the 24-year collegiate coach is realistic, with only two senior and two juniors poised to lead the team.

“We’re still young, and we will play that way from time to time,” he said.

Youth didn’t seem to matter last year, as a pair of freshmen were Oregon’s leading scorers. Forward Ruthy Hebard (14.9 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) and guard Sabrina Ionescu (14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game) helped set the tone early, leading the team to a 10-2 preconference record that included an upset of No. 24 Michigan State and a win over Clemson.

The Ducks stumbled a bit in Pac-12 play, going 8-10. But the regrouping they did for their postseason run showed their tremendous potential – as well as the fact that they are unafraid.

Graves acknowledged that the expectations of his team are higher this year, but he said they are ready.

“I think they, in the backs of their minds, think they can do more and do better, and that’s certainly what we’re gunning for this year,” he said.

Senior guard Lexi Bando (10.2 points per game), junior guard Maite Cazorla (8.1 points, 3.9 assists per game) and sophomore forward Mallory McGwire (7.3 points, 4.2 rebounds per game) also return to start with Hebard and Ionescu.

Returning reserves include junior forward Oti Gildon, senior guard Justine Hall, sophomore guard Sierra Campisano and sophomore guard Morgan Yaeger.

Newcomers include German forward Satou Sabally; Australian guard Anneli Maley; and guard Aina Ayuso from Spain. Redshirt freshman Lydia Giomi, who received a medical hardship after breaking her hand a few games into last season, is also ready to play.

Sophomore forward Erin Boley, who transferred to Oregon from Notre Dame last spring, is practicing with the team despite being ineligible for play this year due to transfer rules.

“Erin is an elite player, and having her here, in practices, makes a huge difference,” Graves said.

Ionescu said the Ducks will continue to focus on playing team basketball.

“I think everyone’s going to have a huge role on our team this year,” she said. “I don’t think there is one player in particular that’s going to play more minutes, or do this or do that. That all takes care of itself.”

Graves said Oregon’s annual retreat is this weekend, where the team will hash out individual and collective goals. But in the first two weeks of practice, they are headed in the right direction.

“The chemistry is good, and everyone is working hard. No one has to be prodded along,” Graves said. “They are all great students. We’re in a great place right now.”