Four returning starters could lead Oregon to the Final Four
Usually, it’s a bad sign when airport security stops you. But Oregon Ducks point guard Sabrina Ionescu didn’t have any liquids in her bag. Instead, the officer wanted to congratulate her on the Ducks’ success, which included 33 wins and a second consecutive Elite Eight last season.
Oregon’s success came, in large part, because no one could stop them on offense. Despite playing slower than most teams, the Ducks scored the seventh-most points per game in the country last season. They made 40.1 percent of their three-point attempts, dished out over 19 assists per game, and committed fewer than 13 turnovers per game, ranking in the 91st percentile nationally in all three categories.
The results spoke for themselves. The team finished the season second in the country in points per scoring attempt (PPSA), with 1.19, and the five starters averaged between 1.09 and 1.32 PPSA, which ranked in the 91st percentile and above. Four Oregon players were all-Pac-12 selections, two were national players of the year at their positions, and Ionescu was a consensus All-American. For good measure, Oregon also had the highest one-year increase in home attendance in the country.
The logical prediction is that Oregon will pick up this season right where it left off. The Ducks return four starters and are ranked third in the country in the AP preseason poll. Ionescu is the headliner for coach Kelly Graves as the team’s point guard and best player. The junior averaged 19.7 points, 7.8 assists, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game last season, even while playing more minutes than all but two other players nationwide. (You may also know her as the “Triple-Double Queen.”) Classmate Ruthy Hebard also returns as Ionescu’s go-to target inside; the 6’4” forward averaged 17.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game last season and won the award for the nation’s best power forward. Oregon’s other returning starters are senior guard Maite Cazorla (10.9 points per game, 4.8 assists per game, 38.9% 3-point shooting) and sophomore forward Satou Sabally (10.7 points per game, 37.0% 3-point shooting).
Last year’s fifth starter was Lexi Bando, who also happened to be one of the best outside shooters in the nation (45.7%, 19th nationally). Luckily for Graves, he has a potential ace in the hole in redshirt sophomore Erin Boley, who was the 2016 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year and sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame. As a freshman, Boley made 39.5% of her three-pointers and scored 1.08 PPSA, so she should fit right in with an offense that takes a lot of threes and is highly efficient.
In the preseason, Graves found a lot to like about his team. With so much talent returning, he said, “We can start at a higher plane, and the intensity’s there. They’re not having to think … They’re just reacting and playing, so it’s been fun.” It also helps that Boley likely has less rust and more familiarity with her teammates than most players who sit out a season do. During the offseason, she teamed with Ionescu, Hebard, and senior Oti Gildon to win the 3x3 national championship and advance to the FIBA 3x3 World Cup quarterfinals.
If Oregon has a weakness this season, it could be its bench. Graves has said he likes to play a lot of players, but this year the Ducks’ bench will be neither deep nor particularly experienced. During the offseason, Bando and reserve Justine Hall graduated and four other Ducks transferred, leaving Oregon with just 10 players for the 2018–19 season. Of the four transfers, 6’4” forward Mallory McGwire was the most significant contributor a year ago, averaging just under 5 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes per game, and would have been a prime candidate for a larger role this season.
Assuming Boley takes the final starting spot, the exodus leaves Oregon with only Gildon, redshirt sophomore Morgan Yaeger, sophomore Lydia Giomi, and freshman Taylor Chavez to spell the starters. (Freshman Nyara Sabally, whom Graves called a Pac-12 Freshman of the Year candidate, will miss the season with a knee injury.) None of the reserves are proven scorers: Gildon, Yaeger, and Giomi each averaged less than 5 points per game in their most recent seasons on the court, and Yaeger is coming off of a back injury that cost her all of last season. Graves raved about Yaeger and Gildon in the preseason, but he may end up calling on the freshman Chavez for offense off the bench. The 2018 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year hit two game-winning three-pointers in the postseason during her senior year of high school, and she showed Ionescu-like versatility with averages of 23.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 5.3 steals per game.
Before Oregon begins its Pac-12 title defense on January 4, it will play several tough non-conference games. The marquee matchup is undoubtedly the December 18 game against national runner-up Mississippi State. But the Ducks also host Syracuse, which is the rare team that has a passer to rival Ionescu in Tiana Mangakahia, and play sneaky-good mid-major teams Buffalo and South Dakota State, both of whom played in the NCAA tournament last season. The schedule doesn’t get any easier in conference play, as Oregon leads three Pac-12 teams ranked in the preseason top 10 (including arch-rival Oregon State at #8).
To put it simply, if you like offense, Oregon was the team to watch last year. It’s a safe bet that Ionescu and company will continue to put on a show this season. That offensive firepower and chemistry could carry them to the program’s first Final Four — that is, if they can get past airport security.