Oregon picked to repeat as Pac-12 women's basketball champions

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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 the following year should be just as special given that two of the Ducks’ biggest stars — Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard — are 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. But this is the first time in program history that conference coaches have picked Oregon to come out on top.

The Ducks, with four returning starters after consecutive runs to the 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, with Oregon receiving 11 first-place votes by the conference coaches. Stanford was chosen second with the only other first-place vote. Oregon State was picked third and Cal fourth.

In Eugene, Oregon, you won’t hear Graves and his players talking about a Final Four run, not at this stage. It’s about working every day, striving for success at the end but “not necessarily an ultimate goal,” Graves 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-foot-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’s “5-4 point-five with shoes.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories of media day came from Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who shared how she found some crucial balance this summer — but, of course, quickly turned her attention to her players — by water skiing at the crack of dawn many mornings on a lake in Minnesota.

“I water skied every day but one in the month of August. It keeps tread on my tire to be excited to go in the gym. ... I want to be fresh, I want to be excited. That’s what I did.

“You know I’m a nut. I went off the deep end and got two boats, one for each lake.”

The two-time defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors are scheduled to practice in Stanford’s gym Thursday after Stanford practices at 6 a.m., the same time VanDerveer took to the water.

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 spring, 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.”

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