Getting one of the best college teams in the country ready for the season is a tall task in any year. But as Oregon coach Kelly Graves and his staff prepare for tipoff next month, they’re taking a brand-new approach: mental health first.
The intense practices that created the top scoring offense in the country last year are in full swing. But coaches are taking equal care to ensure athletes are supported as they navigate basketball and school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Things aren’t normal, and there’s a tendency to sometimes look at the bad side of things: I can’t do this, I can’t do that,” Graves said of the quarantine and safety protocols players must adhere to in practices, and for school.
“They can’t even go out and have a team meal together, and that’s difficult because you don’t have the chance to really bond and build team chemistry, which is just as important off the court as on the court. They’re not able to get out and really enjoy the entire college experience, which is what this is about.”
Duck athletes, like others around the country, are limited to associating only with the teammates they live with outside of practices. All wear masks for the duration of the sessions, and afterwards, they return to their apartments to attend classes online. Graves said he feels for his squad.
“(They) then go home and look at their computer. It can’t be easy for them,” he said. “We’re trying to recognize that mental health becomes maybe an issue with our players, and we’re doing whatever we can to keep their enthusiasm up, keep their focus.”
“We do focus on mental health. We talk about different issues every day.”
Looming in the background of their new lives is the uncertainty of the season, which is scheduled to begin Nov. 25, though most Division I teams have yet to finalize their nonconference schedules. Graves is also conscious that even one positive COVID test could shut down practices for at least two weeks. Then there is the backdrop of negative news cycles.
“That’s why it’s a difficult time for them,” he said.
Graves and longtime assistant coaches Mark Campbell, Jodie Berry and Xavier Lopez are making efforts to keep workouts up-tempo.
“We’ve tied to make our practice a lot more fun, to keep that energy level up,” Graves said. “We want them to enjoy coming to practice.”
So far, it seems to be working.
“I love the energy (players show), I love the enthusiasm,” he said. “And I love that our players have not complained about wearing masks…they’ve accepted this is what we have to do until our local officials tell us we can do otherwise.”
Graves, who in 25 years of coaching has guided his teams to 12 regular-season conference titles and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, has always been all business. But this year he expanded his approach and his care for his athletes.
“We’re doing a lot more of the feel-good stuff off the court than we normally do,” he said. “I’m more about just ball. This year, more than ever, we’ve tried to engage as much as we can with them, to watch film in small groups as much as we can.”
“We’ve got some good team bonding things we’ve done that I wouldn’t normally do. I’m not that kind of guy. I’m positive, but I don’t need the fluff in our program. And we’re giving them a little fluff this year.”
Graves said the emphasis on care started in the spring, as his assistants continued to talk to athletes, including their No. 1-ranked recruiting class. This fall Oregon saw all 13 players on the roster show up for the season.
Senior forward Erin Boley is the lone returning starter, and Graves said she is stepping up.
“Erin is a really smart player….she’s capable of doing more and she’s showing that this fall,” he said. “She’s being a lot more aggressive to the basket. She knows we need her to do more. She’s been a great leader for us so far this fall.”
Forward Lydia Giomi – the only other senior on the squad – has taken on a “mother hen” role with Boley for a group that features nine newcomers, five of which are freshmen.
“They’re nice people, they’re mother hens, and they keep everyone enthusiastic and make sure everyone is involved,” Graves said of the seniors.
Also returning are key reserve guards Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley. Making their long-awaited debuts are Texas transfer Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally – sister of departed program great Satou Sabally.
When asked to name one or two freshmen that stood out, Graves credited all of his five-star recruits.
“They’ve all come in as state champs. They’re experienced in winning and they know what it takes,” Graves said. “I’ve seen a lot of leadership emerge from that group.”
Another thing that has impressed him is the work players have put into their own training.
“I think we’re in great shape. We look like we’re close to being in game shape right now,” Graves said. “And I credit our players. They’ve worked hard in conditioning, in the weight room, and when we play, we play hard. That’s helped them and I’m impressed. Kudos to a focused and dedicated team.”
At the same time, practices are running longer because coaches are having to spend more time teaching.
“It’s been a roller coaster with execution with nine new players,” Graves said. “Some days we look like world leaders and other days, we don’t look so good. We’re still getting used to each other. The more we get comfortable with each other, the quicker roles start to develop.”
The Ducks will look a lot different this season than they have with Sabrina Ionescu, Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, who were drafted into the WNBA at the No. 1, 2 and 8 spots, respectively. But Graves looks forward to the journey.
“We can’t compare this team to any of our past teams. We’re built different,” he said. “We don’t have much experience as we’ve have had in the past, but this is our best shooting team. In the past we’ve played through Sabrina and Satou, and how we might play through our inside people a little more.”
“We’ll run a lot more sets to get more open threes. (But) the basic structure of what we do on a daily basis and the offense we run is going to be the same, for the most part.”