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Oregon will start at the top, but the Pac-12’s best aren’t far behind

The Oregon Ducks received their first AP No. 1 ranking in school history in the preseason poll. It’s a deserved honor, but it won’t make the 2019-20 season any easier for them.

NCAA Women’s Final Four - Semifinals
Satou Sabally (left), Sabrina Ionescu and the Oregon Ducks made their first Final Four in 2019. Is a national championship next?
Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

With the Oregon Ducks having seniors Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard in their starting five, they’re going to be downright scary this season.

The Ducks, who this week earned an AP No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history, haven’t finished lower than the Elite Eight since Ionescu’s and Hebard’s freshman season. In fact, it’s been three Elite Eights, including turning last season’s top-eight bid into the program’s first Final Four appearance.

The Ducks have improved their postseason outcomes. After being trounced by UConn in the 2017 postseason, the Ducks in 2018 allowed Notre Dame only a 10-point win in 2018. This past April, Oregon played tight with Baylor — entered the second half tied — before falling 72-67.

Notre Dame and Baylor went on to win national championships in those respective seasons.

NCAA Women’s Final Four - Semifinals
Ruthy Hebard
Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

But it’s not just Oregon’s postseason success that has made it a team to fear. Before 2018, it hadn’t won a Pac-12 regular-season title since 2000. Now, it’s the two-time defending champion. The Ducks also have made the last two Pac-12 tournament championship games, winning in 2018.

Oregon’s Pac-12 dominance in Ionescu’s and Hebard’s tenure was a swift turnaround — 8-10 in 2016-17 to two straight 16-2 seasons. The only teams they lost to in conference play during those seasons were Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA.

Naturally, the next three teams behind Oregon in both the AP Poll and the preseason Pac-12 poll are, in that order ... Stanford (AP No. 3), Oregon State (AP No. 7) and UCLA (AP No. 11).

Each has a great case to upset Oregon for the Pac-12 title:

Stanford: Out for (more) revenge

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 30 Div I Women’s Championship - Third Round - Missouri State v Stanford Cardinal
DiJonai Carrington
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stanford had to face Oregon only once in conference play last season, at home. Easiest possible way to hand them their first loss, right?

Not so much. The Ducks demolished the Cardinal 88-48. While Ionescu was just a rebound and two assists away from one of her signature triple-doubles, only DiJonai Carrington scored in double figures for Stanford.

But the 2019 Pac-12 tournament title went to the Cardinal. How did Stanford turn things around to beat the Ducks? Truly, by just playing to their potential. That initial loss was their only home loss of the season, a poorly-timed lapse in the Cardinal’s elite ability. But in the championship, Stanford let Ionescu do her thing while also limiting Hebard to below 50 percent shooting (a rarity for the 67 percent shooter) and, importantly, getting their own stars on the board.

With two regular-season matchups this season — first at Oregon, then at home — Stanford can prove that its home loss last season was a fluke, and that it has a good shot to retain its Pac-12 tournament title (if not take back its regular-season title as well).

Oregon State: Home-court dominance continues

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 29 Div I Women’s Championship - Third Round - Oregon State v Louisville
Mikayla Pivec
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Beavers are a historically great team at home — especially against their in-state rivals. Oregon State hasn’t dropped a home game to Oregon since 2010, and they’ve only lost four other times to the Ducks since then, all in Eugene.

Last season’s weekend home-and-home — the way Pac-12 regional pairs play both games — saw the Ducks run away with the first game, while the Beavers held their opponents to 35.8 percent shooting in Corvallis en route to a 67-62 win just three days later.

No matter the season outlook for either team, playing in Corvallis is always a difficult task for the visitor. Getting another home win against the Ducks this season would put the Beavers in an excellent position should they meet again in the conference tournament ... unless they go one-and-out in the quarterfinals again and never get the chance.

UCLA: Big-game performances ... only?

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Team v Team
Japreece Dean
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite a rocky start to last season — losing five of their first eight games, including being swept at the Paradise Jam — the Bruins picked things up eventually. A four-game losing streak near the beginning of Pac-12 play was followed by winning 10 of their last 12 conference games. This included a win against Oregon ... in Eugene, no less.

While UCLA was swept by other conference powers Oregon State and Stanford, beating Oregon on the road came courtesy of a comeback effort led by Kennedy Burke, Japreece Dean and Michaela Onyenwere. That trio also led the Bruins in what ended up being an overtime loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 Tournament. While Burke has moved on to the WNBA, Dean and Onyenwere are back this season.

But clearly, having two of its best scorers back can’t help UCLA overcome its consistency issues on its own. UCLA being able to step up in these dire situations against this one big-time opponent in particular is helpful, but it isn’t sustainable unless this toughness exists all season.

Reminder! The Pac-12 owns the WNIT title

Courtesy of Arizona Athletics via Twitter

Arizona, chosen sixth in the preseason Pac-12 poll behind the aforementioned teams and in-state rival Arizona State, carries a six-game win streak into the new season thanks to winning the 2019 WNIT. The Wildcats defeated Idaho State, Pacific, Idaho, Wyoming, TCU and Northwestern en route to the title.

They also own another advantage over any other team in the nation: Junior Aari McDonald is the nation’s best returning scorer now that the two players above her — Iowa’s Megan Gustafson and Buffalo’s Cierra Dillard — have graduated.

In other news: Pac-12 vs. Team USA

NCAA Women’s Final Four - Texas A&M v Stanford
Nneka Ogwumike (Stanford ‘12) will face her alma mater on Saturday, Nov. 2, as a member of Team USA.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Pac-12’s top three teams will host Team USA in exhibition games over the next week, beginning Saturday night. Look out for gameday coverage on Swish Appeal of the national team’s college tour that will put them against Stanford, Oregon State and Oregon. Until then, here’s the quick rundown:

  • Saturday, Nov. 2: Stanford vs. Team USA, 7 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network/Pac-12 Bay Area
  • Monday, Nov. 4: Oregon State vs. Team USA, 10 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network/Pac-12 Oregon
  • Saturday, Nov. 9: Oregon vs. Team USA, 7 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Oregon