Let me begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for Oregon head coach Kelly Graves and star player Sabrina Ionescu — I think they’re two of the top coaches/players in the game of college basketball.
But their greatness doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to mistakes, and over the last four weeks the Ducks have been full of them.
Exactly one month ago, Oregon walked out of Maples Pavilion after making a proclamation to the rest of the college basketball world.
The Ducks’ 88-48 demolishing of then-ranked No. 11 Stanford was one of the most statement-made victories by any team in the nation. Not only was it the worst loss of future hall-of-fame head coach Tara VanDerveer’s career, Oregon dropped 88 points on one of the best defenses in the country.
At that point, the Ducks were 23-1 and 12-0 in the Pac-12, the No. 3 in the nation and in the running for the top overall seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. They looked like a team on a mission with very few, if any, flaws and a true national championship contender.
Fast forward to the present and Oregon is not the same team, or even close to it. Following the 64-57 loss to the Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game, the Ducks’ woes offensively and defensively shone brightly — looking more like a team with hopes of the Sweet 16 rather than one trying to make its first ever Final Four.
For most of the season, Oregon ran with a rotation of seven players — five of them (all starters) received all-Pac-12 honors. But for a team that was slaughtering its opponents by an average of 23.2 points per game this season (21.3 in conference play), there is no excuse for Ionescu, Maite Cazorla and Satou Sabally to be averaging over 32 minutes per game — and that’s on Graves.
He’s had nine healthy players and should’ve done a better job of managing their minutes. There’s no reason for Ionescu to still be in the game with three minutes to go when the Ducks have been up by double digits since the third quarter.
Role players such as Morgan Yaeger and Lydia Giomi — who average a combine 16 minutes per game — could easily have averaged that per player, per game. But because of Graves’ unwillingness to rest his star players, the typical wear and tear that comes with playing 30 games per season (before the NCAA Tournament begins) has been amplified.
Against Stanford, Oregon looked a step slow with no legs left. The shots that were falling in the beginning of the season when healthy, weren’t falling when it mattered most — and it wasn’t from a lack of execution of offense. Simply put, the ball wasn’t going through the hoop, and it wasn’t close.
With the Ducks dealing with injury issues Ionescu’s distrust in her teammates was never more apparent than on Sunday — and it’s been that way since the loss to Stanford four weeks ago. Over and over she would force the offense, take on double times and launch ill-advised shots while open teammates stood pat beyond the arc. She would rather have the ball in her hand than trust somebody else with an important shot, taking all the burden upon herself — qualities that didn’t make her the front runner for the national player of the year.
Since the victory over Stanford, the Ducks are 6-3 and averaging 15 points per game less. Ionescu is averaging 20.5 points per game over that time period, but is shooting 40-percent from the floor (32.7-percent from three-point territory) and averaging 19 shots per game. The Ducks are at their best when Ionescu is not only more efficient shooting, but distributing evenly and finding her open teammates, helping instill confidence in themselves.
That Oregon team, with Ionescu leading the way, beat Stanford by 40 points and was in the running for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
This Oregon team is limping to finishing line, literally. But with two weeks until the tournament begins, the Ducks have time to rest and get healthy — time to find themselves and the recipe that’s driven their success to back-to-back Elite Eights.
And that starts with Graves and Ionescu — two of the best in the game. They’ll figure it out… or else.