Freshman chemistry isn't an elective course for the Oregon women's basketball team.
It's been a long time since the Ducks had a team with this much talent, a long time since they opened a season with this much promise. Their NCAA Tournament drought, now 11 years and counting, might soon be history.
If all goes as planned, these seven fresh-faced kids will spend the next four years resetting the bar for what Oregon women's basketball can be. But right now they're a group of teenage girls, together for the first time, learning about themselves and each other as they embark on a new adventure.
For the Ducks to reach their potential, these seven freshmen from various parts of the world — from Alaska to Australia and all along the West Coast — will need to bond. Egos, agendas and personal rivalries will have to be set aside, and players accustomed to the spotlight will have to share.
Getting along, they've decided, isn't going to be optional.
“I think we just knew we were going to have to be friends, to be honest with you,” said Lydia Giomi, a 6-foot-6 freshman from Seattle. “We were like, ‘Here's the deal. There's seven freshmen. We're going to be here for four years together. If we're going to get anywhere, we're going to have to like each other a little bit.'”
Fortunately, Giomi said, it hasn't been difficult. The Ducks spent part of August together in Europe, traveling for 12 days between Barcelona, Amsterdam and Madrid. They started out as acquaintances, but by the time the trip was over, they were hugging in the airport and counting the days until they were together again.
“It worked out so easily,” Giomi said. “I can't even tell you how fortunate I am and how excited I am to have a group of girls that I'm going to be friends with for the rest of my life.”
The offseason bonding will be tested once the games begin and roles become defined. Along with the seven freshmen, Oregon has three returning starters in Lexi Bando, Maite Cazorla and Jacinta Vandenberg, plus a pair of junior college transfers from the 2015 class in Mar'Shay Moore and Megan Trinder, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Finding enough shots to go around will require sacrifice on someone's part.
“The other day I had the kids on a piece of paper anonymously write down how many minutes they expected to play, and it totaled 270 minutes,” coach Kelly Graves said. “Well, there's only 200 minutes in a game, so we're going to have to manage those expectations for each one of them and get them to realize it's only team success that matters.”
Oregon's freshmen were all heralded recruits in their own way, but the headliner is Sabrina Ionescu, the five-star guard who signed with the Ducks after a lengthy recruiting process.
Ionescu's talent and the scrutiny around her college choice means she'll have a spotlight even brighter than the rest. That's something Oregon will have to manage, both in terms of her own expectations and those of her teammates.
You can see why it might be tricky, how other players could feel threatened or overshadowed by the presence of such a ballyhooed recruit. But if they can make the chemistry work, you also can see the potential for the Ducks to be one of the Pac-12's most dangerous teams.
Whatever their talent says they should be, it's wise to temper expectations to reflect the Ducks' inexperience. A team relying on freshmen is going to hit some highs and lows, no matter how gifted those players happen to be.
That's probably what the Pac-12 coaches were thinking when they picked Oregon seventh, a spot lower than the Ducks finished last season. You can understand the logic, with Oregon losing an all-American in Jillian Alleyne and five other seniors from last year's team.
Still, seventh place feels like the low end of what Oregon can accomplish.
“I actually thought it was pretty good, where we were picked,” Graves said. “We can certainly use it as motivation. In the end, you play everybody and play most of them twice. It works itself out.
“I would like to think we can finish a lot higher.”
There's no question they can, as long as everybody masters the nuances of freshman chemistry.
To make this season a success, they won't have any other choice.
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