SAN FRANCISCO — Kelly Graves began his afternoon address at Pac-12 media day describing the expectations for his talented, favored Oregon team for the “2019 and ’20” season ahead.
The good-natured coach could only chuckle once he was politely corrected that it’s 2018-19, then recovered beautifully, noting that the following year should be just as special given that two of the Ducks’ biggest stars — Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard — are currently juniors.
“That might work out, too,” he quipped Wednesday.
Yes, this upstart program has big plans for years to come.
The Ducks have been picked to repeat as Pac-12 women’s basketball champions. Last season, Oregon made the regional final of the NCAA Tournament after winning the conference regular-season and tournament titles. This is the first time in program history that conference coaches picked Oregon in the preseason to come out on top.
The Ducks, with four returning starters after consecutive runs to the NCAA Elite Eight, have been pushing each other in practices that are among the most competitive these women can remember since arriving on campus.
“I think our demeanor stayed the same but just the experience of having gone through at least these last two years of achieving getting to the Elite Eight, I think this year we know what it takes to get there,” Ionescu said.
The Pac-12 announced the preseason poll Wednesday, and Oregon received 11 first-place nods in voting by the conference coaches. Stanford was chosen second with the only other first-place vote. Oregon State was picked third and California fourth.
In Eugene, Graves and his players will not talking about a Final Four run, not at this stage. It is about working every day, striving for success at the end and “not necessarily an ultimate goal,” the coach said.
“I think our players understand how good we are and where we are in the women’s basketball landscape. We’re certainly capable of doing great things,” Graves said. “We know a lot of things have to happen, but we’re good enough.”
Oregon State features three players 6-feet-7 or taller — 6-9 freshman Andrea Aquino from Paraguay, 6-8 senior Joanna Grymek and 6-7 freshman Patricia Morris.
“It’s interesting, the shortest coach and the tallest team. … I’ve learned that I really like tall posts,” Beavers coach Scott Rueck said, later acknowledging he is 5-4 1/2 “with shoes.”
Pac-12 teams are again preparing for daunting early-season matchups that should pay dividends come tournament time in March.
Arizona State will travel five hours to face Baylor on Nov. 11 for a Veteran’s Day weekend showdown on the Navajo Reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, a way to honor Native American Heritage Month and Native American military members.
Cal will host Connecticut in December, while Stanford will take on Gonzaga, Baylor and Tennessee in a tough three-game December stretch.
Next March, the women’s conference tournament moves from Seattle to Las Vegas, where the men’s tournament takes place.
With strong nonconference schedules early, the Pac-12 coaches are determined to build off momentum from last season when the conference earned six NCAA berths — the fifth straight year at least five teams received bids — and three teams reached regional finals. That marked the third consecutive season four teams advanced at least to the regional semifinal rounds.
“Talent, depth experience,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “That definitely defines the Pac-12 Conference.”