Starter improvements fuel Oregon’s growth

Sabrina Ionescu, left, prepares to follow Ruthy Hebard's shot against Ole Miss earlier this season. Photo by 16KMTR.
Sabrina Ionescu, left, prepares to follow Ruthy Hebard’s shot against Ole Miss earlier this season. Photo by 16KMTR.

To understand the meteoric improvement of the Oregon Ducks this season, look no further than three of their star starters.

As junior guard Maite Cazorla, sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard and sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu have gone, so have the Ducks, who entered 2017-2018 with a target on their backs.

After being tabbed to finish in the bottom of the Pac-12 last year, Oregon crashed the semifinals of the conference tournament, were selected for the NCAA Tournament, and upset teams all the way to the Elite Eight. They began this season ranked in the top 15, and have steadily risen in the polls to reach a program-highest fifth last week.

The work that the returners put in during the offseason is paying off, as all three have significantly improved their game production.

Cazorla, in 36 games last year, averaged 8.1 points per outing on 39.9 percent shooting from the field, and dished 141 assists. This season she averages 10.3 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and has 104 assists so far.

Hebard averaged 14.9 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds per game last year. Currently she averages 17.2 points per game on an incredible 68 percent shooting from the field, and 8.1 rebounds per game. Her field goal percentage includes some perfect games, such as last weekend’s 7-7 effort against Arizona State.

Ionescu scored 14.6 points per game on 39 percent shooting, including 42 percent from beyond the arc, along with 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game last season. This year she is averaging 20 points per game, 7.2 rebounds and 7.1 assists on 46.7 percent from the field, including 45 percent from behind the three-point line. Ionescu also broke the NCAA record for triple-doubles last month.

A fourth starter, senior guard Lexi Bando, has averaged about 10 points per game since her freshman season. She is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

The Ducks take on No. 16 Oregon State Sunday in game two of the annual “Civil War” matchup between the two teams.