WBB: Ducks enter Pac-12 play as favorites; but many coming after the crown

Armed with one of nation's best and most-balanced offenses, Ducks need to turn it up on defense if they want to repeat

After back-to-back Elite Eight finishes in the NCAA Tournament, it comes as no surprise that that Oregon is once again the Pac-12 favorites. Led by do-everything guard Sabrina Ionescu, the Ducks return four starters from last year’s team that won both the regular season and conference tournament.

Making a case as the conference’s top team, No. 5 Oregon already has wins over No. 14 Syracuse and No. 7 Mississippi State — the Ducks lone loss came on the road to No. 15 Michigan State.

Between the nonconference wins and the play of Ionescu, Oregon (11-1) is no longer under the radar as everyone is chasing down the Ducks and their high-flying offense.

“The depth of the conference is as good as it’s ever been… there are no gimmies,” Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. “I think that’s why our conference has done so well in the NCAA the last several years, because you got to bring it every night in conference play — there are no weak sisters.”

Graves wasn’t joking when he said the Pac-12 is a deep conference — four other teams are nationally-ranked; No. 6 Stanford, No. 11 Oregon State, No. 18 Cal and No. 22 Arizona State. Utah (12-0) and Arizona (11-1) are both receiving votes and appear to be potential sleeper candidates, even more so after picking up Pac-12 wins in their conference openers.

The Ducks will begin conference play against Washington on tonight at home. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. and will air on the Pac-12 Network.

Entering the final half of the season, Oregon is the tied for the nation’s best scoring offense at 92.6 points per game. The Ducks 1.99 assists-to-turnover ratio is also tops in the country, as is their shooting and free-throw percentage. Oregon’s assist per game is fifth and its three-point percentage ranks sixth in the nation, making the Ducks as elite as can be on the offensive end of the ball.

That’s a good thing considering Graves expects his team will get each Pac-12 contender’s best shot night in and night out.

“I think we’re going to get everybody’s best, that comes with the territory,” Graves said. “That means that we have to have extreme focus and preparation each and every game and play our best or we know we’re going to get beat… I think in the long-run knowing that you’re the team to beat I think makes you better.”

Even with the elite offense, the Graves and co admit the defense is a work in progress. Forcing turnovers and getting out into transition is a must for the athletic Ducks — but physicality is where they’ve been exposed in the past.

“I know coach always says that since we’re at the top now people always are going to bring us their best game… I think that’s good for us,” Oregon’s Ruth Hebard said. “He said Michigan State woke us up and showed us everyone is going to play us to the best ability… I think it’s going to be a good challenge for us."

The Spartans were able to overpower the Ducks in the game, leading to offensive rebounds and extra possessions. If Oregon wants to compete with the Oregon State’s and Stanford’s of the Pac-12, the Ducks know that it’ll take more than offense to win — it’ll take a physical defense to do so.

Since the lone loss to Michigan State, Oregon has been the more physical team against their opponents, as evidenced by the Ducks 82-74 win over Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are tied with Oregon as the top scoring team in the nation, but the Ducks outrebounded Mississippi State 27-25 in their victory.

They limited Bulldogs 6-foot-7 all-American center Teaira McCowan to just five points, often swarming her physical double-teams and routinely pushing her out of the paint.

"We know that was one of their strengths, we know they liked to play bully ball, and they have great athletes and that's what they thrive on,” Ionescu said following the game. “So, we know we had to stand our ground and be just as tough as they were or tougher.”

That’s a recipe for success in the Pac-12 — something the Ducks need to conjure up every game if it’s going to navigate the path that leads to a repeat as conference champions.