After back-to-back Elite Eight finishes the previous two years, Oregon is looking to take the next step forward. That step begins tonight when the No. 3 Ducks begin the new college basketball season in Alaska, taking on Alaska-Fairbanks.
The game is a homecoming for Ruthy Hebard, the reigning national power forward of the year and an honorable mention all-American last season.
"We got told we were playing there, so then people came up to me (when I was home in the summer) all the time like I can't wait to see you, I'm going to get tickets," Hebard said. "It's going to be really fun. I can't wait to show people who I get to surround myself with now in college and hopefully get to see my old teammates and teachers."
Hebard is from Fairbanks, Alaska, attending West Valley High School where she dominated the local ranks. She was a first-team all-state performer for three years, being named the Gatorade Alaska State player of the year three times. She averaged 25.9 points, 15.1 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.5 blocks per game en route to being named the 40th best prospect in the nation.
Now a junior, Hebard gets the chance to show off in front of her family and friends as the Ducks face the Nanooks at 8 p.m. PT.
"I'm not that concerned about winning or losing the game," Oregon head coach Kelly Graves said. "I want us to be sharp, play hard and do the right things, play the right way. We want to get some momentum going into that home opener against Syracuse because they're no joke, that's a good team.
Leading Oregon with Hebard is guard Sabrina Ionescu, one of the best players in the country. After being named the national point guard of the year and an all-American last season, Ionescu is back for her junior year with her eyes set on bigger and better things for the Ducks, noticing that her teammates are following and feeling the same.
"Our practices this year have been the most competitive and the most dialed-in since I've got to Oregon, which is inspiring to see," Ionescu, who averaged 19.7 points, 7.8 assists and 6.7 rebounds last season, said.
Apart from Hebard and Ionescu, the Ducks return fellow starters Satou Sabally and Maite Cazorla. Sabally was named the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season while Cazorla, the senior, has been a starter since she stepped onto campus.
The Ducks also get impact transfer Erin Boley from Notre Dame, freshman Taylor Chavez and return Oti Gildon.
With all the depth and talent returning, it’s no wonder expectattions ar ehigh for the Ducks. But for Graves, he understands that the Ducks just need to do what they do and keep progressing.
“What people say externally, we're not that worried about,” Graves said. “We know what we're capable of, and we always put high expectations on ourselves, not necessarily an ultimate goal."
The game will not be broadcast on TV but can be streamed at AlaskaNanooks.com