Oregon might have the best women’s basketball team in program history.
It won’t be the deepest.
Kelly Graves and the Ducks, coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, began practice for the 2018-19 season on Monday with only nine healthy players.
The defending Pac-12 champions are still the team to beat out west.
Oregon adds former national high school player of the year Erin Boley, who sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame, to an accomplished starting lineup of Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and Maite Cazorla.
“We have to really be patient this year and not do too much because we’re lower numbers,” Hebard said. “We’ve got to learn to take care of ourselves and make our way to the Final Four, because we’re going to get there this year.”
The Ducks set a school record with 33 wins last season while winning the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Since losing to eventual national champion Notre Dame in the regional final, Oregon has said goodbye to six players. Lexi Bando and Justine Hall graduated, and Mallory McGwire, Anneli Maley, Aina Ayuso and Sierra Campisano transferred out of the program.
Boley and true freshman guard Taylor Chavez are expected to help make up for the loss of Bando’s perimeter shooting.
Nyara Sabally, the younger sister of Satou, will sit out this season to recover from a serious knee injury suffered while playing for the German national team. The 6-foot-4 forward was the most valuable player of the FIBA Under-18 Div. B European Championships after averaging 17.3 points and 12.8 rebounds.
“She’s such a quality person and student and obviously athlete that one more year in the program is a good thing, but it also makes our bench shorter,” Graves said of Nyara Sabally, who waited until joining the program to undergo surgery. “She’s the kind of player that I think would have been the best freshman in the conference.
“I think she would have had a good chance to be our third straight freshman of the year and was going to give us 20-to-25 minutes a night.”
Ionescu, Hebard, Boley and Oti Gildon represented USA Basketball at the FIBA 3x3 World Cup over the summer in Manila, Philippines. Cazorla and Satou Sabally also have extensive international and NCAA Tournament experience.
The chemistry on the tight-knit team was evident on the first day of practice.
“We’re a lot closer group than we were last year because I think everyone is on board, everyone wants to be here, everyone knows that they’re needed,” Ionescu said. “So I think we’re all on board and ready. This was a great first day. It’s almost like we’re picking up where we left off.”
Morgan Yaeger, who redshirted last season while recovering from a back injury, is healthy and was burying open shots during Monday’s practice. The sophomore guard is expected to get significant minutes off the bench, along with Chavez and Gildon, throughout the season.
“I think Morgan is playing well,” Graves said. “She was a great teammate. She was really into it last year, which is not easy when you are injured and not playing. She looks good.
“There were times out here in pick-up ball, just our open gyms, when she was playing the best.”
Lydia Giomi, a 6-6 sophomore, will give Oregon some depth in the post when she gets fully recovered from offseason foot surgery.
Hebard will likely draw double-teams in the post this season, but the national power forward of the year honoree has been working on her left hand and will be surrounded by four shooters capable of knocking down three-pointers.
“We’re really going to miss Nyara. I was really sad when I heard, of course,” Hebard said. “It will make me step up some more, it will make me be a leader. I won’t be able to have time off in practice, so hopefully I’ll get a lot better being on the court all the time.
“I’m going to work really hard and be a good leader for her next year.”
The Ducks will open the season in Hebard’s hometown, Fairbanks, Alaska, on Nov. 6 against Alaska Fairbanks.
“I have so many people texting me about it. I can’t wait to show everyone Alaska,” Hebard said. “It’s going to be crazy. Everyone is going to be there.”
The nonconference slate also includes a marquee road game at Michigan State (Dec. 9) and a visit by Mississippi State (Dec. 18) to Matthew Knight Arena.
Oregon has already sold about 3,000 season tickets, and the Pac-12 schedule is expected to be released this week.
The Final Four isn’t an official team goal written on a grease board or even talked about much in the locker room.
It’s just the next logical step for the Ducks to take, if this talented group stays healthy.
“I think everyone knows that their role is as important as the person next to them,” Ionescu said. “We’re going to need everyone to step up and play big minutes for us because we’re not very deep this year. But I think that just helps us as a team. I think it helps everyone mentally as well. …
“I think our goal is just getting better internally, individually and collectively, then everything else will take care of itself.”