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No. 2 Oregon Ducks are regaining preseason energy

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Oregon head coach Kelly Graves made it a point to talk to his three best players (Ruthy Hebard, Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally) before the first game of Pac-12 play. His demand for excellence has paid off so far.

Oregon v Long Beach State
Sabrina Ionescu is sharing the spotlight with Ruthy Hebard and Satou Sabally this season.
Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

The No. 2 Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team didn’t have a signature win in non-conference play this season, leaving everyone wondering, at least a little bit, if they still have what it takes to win the national championship.

The only blemish on Oregon’s resume so far is its loss to the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals. Although it wasn’t a bad loss, coupled with the lack of a signature win, a light question mark surrounds the Ducks.

The “Big Three”

Oregon has the best player in the nation on its side: Sabrina Ionescu, who was the center of national media attention last year. This year is different. The Ducks have a “Big Three” that includes Ionescu, her fellow senior Ruthy Hebard and junior Satou Sabally.

According to Rob Moseley, before Oregon’s first game of the Pac-12 season on Friday, head coach Kelly Graves “huddled with his ‘Big Three’ ... and challenged them to improve on an ‘up-and-down’ non-conference performance.”

The pep talk worked. The Ducks blew past the Colorado Buffaloes with ease.

Other pieces

In addition to their “Big Three,” the Ducks have USC Trojans transfer Minyon Moore running the point in place of Maite Cazorla, who is now playing in the WNBA for the Atlanta Dream. Moore has played the third-most minutes and averages 7.6 points per game. She is second on the team in assists, with 60. Only Ionescu has more.

Meanwhile, 3-point specialist Erin Boley is back for her junior campaign. Although her 3-point shooting and efficiency have been down, she is still a key offensive weapon for the Ducks. Oregon also has two freshmen in Jaz Shelley and Holly Winterburn, both of whom can hit from outside.

Looking ahead

The Ducks defeated the Utah Utes 88-51 last night to improve to 2-0 in Pac-12 play. Up next for Oregon is a showdown in the desert at the previously-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday (Jan. 10, 8 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks), followed by a matchup with the No. 18 Arizona Wildcats on Sunday (Jan. 12, 2 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks). After that comes Oregon’s first true test: No. 5 Stanford Cardinal on Thursday, Jan. 16, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2).

The Ducks’ Pac-12 schedule is highlighted by back-to-back games against the No. 3 Oregon State Beavers on Jan. 24 (10 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks) and Jan. 26 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Oregon and Oregon State split the series last year. This year, the No. 1 seed for the Pac-12 tournament may come down to this head-to-head matchup.

No true center in the starting lineup — no problem?

The one area of concern for Oregon is a lack of height. The Ducks have size on their bench, but those players aren’t seeing a lot of playing time. And 6-foot-7 transfer Sedona Prince is not eligible to play this season.

Last year, Oregon lost in the Final Four to a very tall Baylor Lady Bears team that featured 6-foot-7 Kalani Brown and 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox. The Lady Bears won the battle for points in the paint (48-20). But Oregon only lost the semifinal matchup by five points because the Ducks were only out-rebounded by five and made 12 threes (while holding Baylor to none).

Hebard, at 6-foot-4, is the team’s leading scorer and he has one of the best field goal percentages in the country (70.5 percent). She can also run the floor and accept passes in fast-break situations, which is what Oregon is all about. So while it might be a battle for Hebard to back down on someone like Olivia Nelson-Ododa (6-foot-5 center for the No. 1 UConn Huskies), she is lethal in transition — as are Ionescu and Sabally, the latter of whom is also 6-foot-4 and can wait on the wing for a 3-point opportunity. Meanwhile, Ionescu — a tall guard at 5-foot-11 — is one of the best rebounding guards in NCAAW history.

Outlook after non-conference play

Long story short, Oregon is the best fast-paced team in the nation. The Ducks can dominate from long range and have enough size and rebounding ability to get past anyone, including UConn. All the puzzle pieces are in place — the Ducks just need to execute.