SAN FRANCISCO — Oregon had to win the Pac-12 women’s basketball title before earning the role as favorite.
On Wednesday, the Ducks were the unanimous pick to win the conference title in the preseason coaches poll. It is the first time since the poll originated in 1987 that Oregon was at the top.
“We were picked to win it?” junior Sabrina Ionescu asked. “Have we never been picked to win it before? I had no idea. Good for us, I guess.”
Ionescu’s approach signaled that it was no surprise the Ducks were tabbed as the favorite after going 16-2 to capture their first conference title in 18 years. Following back-to-back NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances, the Ducks will likely be a top-five team in preseason polls.
"You can definitely see the attention, but I like that our team doesn't focus or stress about the pressure,” junior Ruthy Hebard said. “We come in and know what we can do, so have fun and play hard. That is how we have been successful.”
As usual, coach Kelly Graves had fun at the conference’s media day despite joking that he was uncomfortable having to wear a suit to the event. After saying he was excited for the “2019-20” season, the coach was corrected by a moderator pointing out that would be next year.
Graves looked at Ionescu and Hebard before adding “2019-20 could be good too because they are both juniors.”
Oregon received first-place votes from each of the other 11 coaches in the conference while Graves, who could not vote for his team, picked Stanford. The Cardinal return four starters after finishing second last year at 14-3 with one game canceled.
“I can turn that into a good thing,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of not being picked to win the conference. “We try to take a long-range view of not the polls in the beginning, but like my dad used to say, it’s not how you start the race but how you finish. I am very confident that we could have a championship team if we can have championship practices and attitudes and championship work ethic and improvement.”
While Oregon is a first-time favorite in the Pac-12, Graves is back in a familiar role after leading Gonzaga to 10 straight West Coast Conference titles before joining the Ducks.
“I think it is a great honor and deserved,” Graves said of the favorite tag. “This is a really, really good group. We are not going to shy away from that, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Oregon returns four starters, led by Ionescu and Hebard at 19.7 and 17.6 points per game, respectively. Graves said he believes he has the top backcourt in the nation with Ionescu and senior Maite Cazorla, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. All three players were first team all-Pac-12 last year.
Satou Sabally averaged 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds and was the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season.
“It almost feels like we are taking off from where we left off last year,” Ionescu said. “Our practices have been the best we’ve had in the last two years. It is to the point, not as long, and not as much teaching, but more getting on ourselves and continuing to get better.”
Oti Gildon and Lydia Giomi are the only other two returnees who played last year for the Ducks, who have nine players on the roster after freshman Nyara Sabally was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Sophomore Morgan Yaeger played two years ago before redshirting last year with a back injury. Erin Boley, a sophomore transfer from Notre Dame, will debut for the Ducks after sitting out last year while freshman Taylor Chavez is the lone newcomer.
Two years ago, Oregon was picked to finish seventh in the conference and placed sixth before reaching the Elite Eight. The Ducks were second in last year’s preseason poll before exceeding those expectations.
“I think the first Elite Eight run we had caught people by surprise, maybe there were a few doubters thinking we got lucky, but now we have kind of made our mark on women’s basketball,” Ionescu said. “Definitely in Eugene, I know there are a lot of believers and people rooting for us. I think this year we can take it to new heights.”