The Oregon women’s basketball team is deep, experienced and will likely be ranked No. 1 when the Associated Press preseason poll is released.
But when the Ducks returned to the court for practices this week it was a somewhat awkward reunion.
Most of the players, including Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard, were scattered around the globe over the summer playing for their respective national teams.
Erin Boley had a 10-week internship with Nike. Lydia Giomi studied abroad.
And five newcomers — USC graduate transfer Minyon Moore, Texas transfer Sedona Prince and true freshmen Jaz Shelley, Holly Winterburn and Lucy Cochrane — have joined the team with national championship expectations.
Oregon advanced to the Final Four for the first time in program history in April, losing to eventual NCAA champion Baylor in the national semifinals on April 5 in Tampa, Fla.
“They had a lot of alone time and it shows. There’s some rust,” coach Kelly Graves said of a quiet offseason on campus. “Our practice (Monday) was the first time we’ve been on the court as a team, as a unit, since the Baylor game.
“So we’re way behind most teams right now.”
Ionescu, the reigning national player of the year, will make sure the Ducks are caught up when her senior season begins Nov. 11 against Northeastern.
“The early practices are almost the most important because it lays out your foundation,” Ionescu said after Wednesday’s practice. “These practices we’ve come in and we’ve played really, really hard. I think that’s what is most important.”
The coaching staff has introduced the offense and the pick-and-roll defense to the players over the course of only three practices.
After relying on only nine players (eight when Hebard was injured) last season, the Ducks are now at least 11 deep.
Prince, a 6-foot-7 forward, would give Graves a dozen players to chose from, if the NCAA grants her application for immediate eligibility.
The only player not competing for a spot in the rotation is Nyara Sabally, who will miss her second consecutive season with a torn ACL.
“Super deep,” Ionescu said of the competition. “It’s kind of nice to have more bodies than we did last year and to be able to play five-on-five. … Talent-wise, we’re a lot better than we were last year.”
That’s a scary statement for the rest of the Pac-12.
The Ducks will almost certainly be picked to three-peat when the preseason coaches poll is released at the conference’s media day event next week in San Francisco.
Oregon returns four starters and will replace Maite Cazorla with two more high-level point guards in Moore and Shelley.
“Everyone was like, ‘Is Sabrina going to go or is she going to stay?’ Shelley said of Ionescu’s decision to put the WNBA on hold. “I was super excited that she was going to stay here. She’s really going out of her way to help me and benefit me.
“It’s really good for me, and hopefully I can play alongside her a lot this season.”
Moore led the Trojans in assists (5.9 per game), rebounds (5.5 per game) and steals (2.6 per game) and was second on the team in scoring at 14.8 points per game last season.
Ionescu played on the same club team as Moore growing up in California.
“We kind of just look at each other and know what we’re thinking,” Ionescu said of their on-court chemistry. “We played a couple years together, so it’s awesome to see her in an Oregon jersey. Happy to have her here.”
Cazorla was Oregon’s best defensive player during her stellar career. Moore was an all-Pac-12 defensive team selection as a sophomore and junior at USC.
“She has completely changed the tempo, the tenor, everything of practice, and it’s awesome,” Graves said. “She’s a one-person wrecking crew defensively, and so I think that’s going to rub off on the rest of our players.
“I anticipate we’ll be a little bit better there. We just have to make some small strides defensively.”
Oregon faces Syracuse, Louisville and UConn during nonconference play and will have to outlast Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and other formidable opponents in the Pac-12 race.
The Ducks understand how to navigate the six-month journey and deal with the spotlight that comes with great expectations.
“We haven’t proven anything yet,” junior forward Satou Sabally said. “We’ve got to prove ourself in the preseason and the Pac-12. I’m excited.
“There’s so much trust in us, but we’ve really got to start from zero this year.”