Kelly Graves' talented team is only ranked behind defending champion Notre Dame and UConn
The Oregon women’s basketball team hopes to finish the 2018-19 season at the Final Four in Tampa, Fla.
The Ducks will begin the season among the first four.
Oregon is No. 3 in the preseason Associated Press poll released Wednesday, the highest ranking in program history, behind defending national champion Notre Dame and UConn.
“Our goal this year is the Final Four,” junior forward Ruthy Hebard said after a recent practice. “And with lower numbers, we’re talking about how Notre Dame did it with lower numbers. That’s a little motivation to prove we can do it as well.”
That’s the logical next step for the Ducks, the reigning Pac-12 regular-season and tournament champions. Oregon has made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons, losing to UConn in 2017 and Notre Dame in 2018.
“Everyone knows how close we were to making that jump last year and getting to the Final Four,” said junior guard Sabrina Ionescu, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year. “I think everyone wants it more than ever. So I think everyone has been practicing like we’re going to get there, and it’s been so fun to be a part of.”
Coach Kelly Graves only has nine healthy scholarship players on the roster this season after losing starter Lexi Bando to graduation and four other players to transfers.
But the Ducks are also one of the most talented and tight-knit teams in the country.
Ionescu is a national player of the year candidate after averaging 19.7 points, 7.8 assists and 6.7 rebounds. Hebard averaged 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds as a sophomore.
Oregon also returns senior guard Maite Cazorla and 2018 Pac-12 freshman of the year Satou Sabally. Notre Dame transfer Erin Boley, a former national high school player of the year, will replace Bando in the starting lineup.
“Last year our exit from the NCAA Tournament got us even hungrier for success this year,” Graves said at the Pac-12 media day event with Hebard and Ionescu. “And what I’ve seen is great focus and intensity and nothing but positive things from these guys and the rest of the Ducks since that day we lost in Spokane.”
The Ducks were 11th in last year’s preseason AP poll and finished the season at No. 5 after setting a school record with 33 wins.
Oregon was voted the overwhelming favorite by the coaches and the media to win the Pac-12 again. The other teams from the conference in the AP poll are No. 7 Stanford, No. 8 Oregon State, No. 23 Arizona State and No. 24 California.
“We’re not going to shy away from that,” Graves said of the great expectations. “But at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything. When we play the Washington schools (Pac-12) opening weekend, we’re all going to be 0-0 and competing for the same prize.
“And I think our players are smart enough to know that and realize that.”
During nonconference play, Oregon faces No. 18 Syracuse in the home opener on Nov. 10 and also host No. 6 Mississippi State on Dec. 18 at Matthew Knight Arena.
The Ducks open the season next Tuesday at Alaska-Fairbanks.