Sport Five reasons why No. 1 Oregon is the favorite to win the NCAA women's basketball title
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When Sabrina Ionescu decided last spring to return for her senior season at Oregon, she had a clear message on social media to her fans and the rest of the country: “Unfinished Business.”
Ionescu is the reigning Wade Trophy and Wooden Award winner as the nation’s top player in women's college basketball, but she still has one more goal before leaving Eugene — win a national championship.
With Ionescu back, the Ducks are ranked No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sports preseason coaches poll, receiving 24 of the 32 first-place votes, making them an early favorite to capture the program’s first national title.
Oregon was close last season, advancing to its first-ever Women’s Final Four, where the Ducks lost 72-67 to Baylor. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, if you want me to be honest,” Ionescu said about the loss to Baylor during Pac-12 media day. “Obviously, now our attention is elsewhere, we’re not focusing too much on the past, we’re focusing on the future.”
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After the Final Four loss, while struggling with the decision, Ionescu went for a walk to think about it. Suddenly, there was no doubt about what she was going to do.
“I just knew. There was no way that I call (head coach Kelly Graves) or my team and tell them that I’m going to be leaving,” Ionescu said. “It just didn’t feel right. So at that moment, I just knew that it’s meant for me to stay for my last year.”
A post shared by Sabrina Ionescu (@sabrina_i) on Apr 6, 2019 at 6:54pm PDT
Oregon has made it to at least the Elite Eight in each of the past three seasons, which was a complete turnaround from the program Graves inherited in 2014-15, when the team went 13-17 in his first season.
The Ducks now are the two-time defending Pac-12 champions. Here are five reasons they should be considered the national title favorite.
1. Sabrina does it all
Ionescu is the best player in the nation, and with an NCAA record 18 career triple-doubles, she can do it all.
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The Ducks’ offense goes through her, and she has excelled at both scoring and distributing to get the players around her involved.
Ionescu averaged 19.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game last season as a junior. She led the team in scoring and assists, and she was second in rebounding. She also was second on the team with 51 steals.
“Super excited to be back with the team,” Ionescu said. “And continue to be the best role model, the best basketball player, the best person I can is ultimately what drives me.”
2. Ducks solid under the basket
Ruthy Hebard averaged 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds a game last season as a junior, and she has been an inside presence throughout her career.
The 6-4 forward has shown flashes of being able to dominate, as she did against South Dakota State in the Sweet 16, when she had a game-high 24 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.
The Ducks would benefit from Hebard taking more shots, considering she shot 67 percent from the field last season.
3. Sabally is an x-factor
Satou Sabally is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, and she had several breakout performances last season.
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Now a junior, Sabally is a 6-4 forward who is athletic and can shoot from the outside — last season, she made 81 3-pointers, which was third-highest on the team.
Do you put a quick guard on her, or a tall forward? Opposing teams struggle with that choice.
4. Oregon brings in transfers
Graves has shown a willingness to bring in transfers he believes can help the team win, including Erin Boley in the past, and Minyon Moore this season.
Boley had to sit out the 2017-18 season due to the NCAA rules when she transferred to Oregon from Notre Dame.
Last season, as a redshirt sophomore forward, Boley started all 38 games and averaged 12.4 points and 3.5 rebounds. She led the Ducks in 3-point shooting, making 108 of 251 shots (43 percent).
Oregon has high hopes for Moore, a guard who averaged 14.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists last season at Southern California. She also was on the Pac-12’s all-defensive team.
As a graduate transfer, Moore can play for the Ducks right away.
5. Graves making adjustments
Graves has been an excellent lever-puller as a coach, and after losing to Baylor in last season’s Final Four he went back to work. Graves studied the loss to Baylor and looked for ways to make Oregon better this season.
“We had such a great season and really had a chance in that semifinal game, and we just missed some shots that were a little out of character for us,” Graves said. “It hurts in the moment, but we’re always turning the page to what’s next. It’s inspired me to work harder in the offseason.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY:
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