By Ryan Thorburn

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

Next up

CS Northridge at No. 11 Oregon

When: 5 p.m. Friday TV: None

EUGENE — There are only a couple of more steps the Oregon women’s basketball program can possibly take.

While racking up frequent-flier miles and spending a good portion of March in the Eastern time zone, the Ducks realized there is an easier path to reaching a Final Four and playing for a national championship.

Kelly Graves’ young team, a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, won two games in Durham, North Carolina, and pulled off another upset, of second-seeded Maryland, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, before getting drubbed by UConn in a regional final that felt like a home game for legendary coach Geno Auriemma and the top-seeded Huskies.

Entering the 2017-18 season, No. 11 Oregon will try to live up to unprecedented preseason expectations and play well enough that its reinvigorated fan base can enjoy part of a postseason ride at Matthew Knight Arena.

The top 16 seeds in the women’s NCAA Tournament have an opportunity to host first- and second-round games.

“I think that’s a good goal to have, to be a host,” Graves said. “I think that’s realistic and something we want to do because it’s a clear advantage to play the tournament at home.”

Graves returns all five starters and nine letter-winners from the team that ended Oregon’s 12-year NCAA Tournament drought and advanced to the regional semifinals and regional final for the first time in program history.

The fourth-year coach is embracing the spotlight but is also quick to point out that the Ducks’ 14-player roster includes six sophomores and four freshmen.

“I don’t think we expected to get to this point for another couple years,” sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu said. “It’s definitely something that’s kind of shocking that we were able to accomplish that as such a young group last year.

“But we’re excited this year, and I think we’re going to be able to go even further.”

In addition to receiving its highest preseason ranking ever, Oregon was picked to finish in a tie with Stanford for second in the Pac-12 behind UCLA.

The Ducks finished 23-14 overall last season and sixth in the conference (8-10).

“We have three players that have been in a Duck uniform two seasons or more,” Graves said. “This is still a young team — two seniors, two juniors. We’re still improving day to day. It’s still a work in progress.

“The expectations are nice and everything, but the reality is we have a lot of work to do.”

Ionescu was a national freshman of the year and an all-Pac-12 selection after averaging 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists with four triple-doubles.

Senior shooting guard Lexi Bando (10.2 ppg) and junior point guard Maite Cazorla (8.1 ppg, 3.9 apg) also return in the backcourt.

All-Pac-12 forward Ruthy Hebard led the team in scoring (14.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg) as a freshman. She is rejoined by 6-foot-5 forward Mallory McGwire (7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg) in the frontcourt.

“We’re really good offensively. I think we have a lot of weapons,” Cazorla said. “If we can get better on defense, we can be awesome.”

Another member of last year’s historic recruiting class, 6-6 forward Lydia Giomi, adds more size and speed after redshirting last season with a broken hand.

“We’re at least two deep at every position, so it has made practices great,” Graves said. “There’s no position that’s firmed up, quite frankly. It’s going to be fluid, and we want our team to know that those positions are open, minutes are open for anybody.

“It’s about us. We just want to be the best that we can be regardless of who starts, finishes, plays the most minutes, that doesn’t matter.”

Three true freshmen with significant international experience — guards Aina Ayuso (Spain) and Anneli Maley (Australia) and forward Satou Sabally (Germany) — are also competing for playing time. During Oregon’s 71-32 exhibition victory over Westmont, the trio combined for 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

“It’s amazing to see from where they were in the beginning to where they are now,” McGwire said of the newcomers. “They’ve gotten so much better. It’s amazing to see them grow.”

18691972