The 2021-22 season for Oregon women’s basketball unofficially began Monday.
Three weeks after returning to Eugene from an NCAA Tournament run that ended in the Sweet Sixteen, the Ducks were back in the gym to begin offseason workouts. The UO women returned to workouts with a trimmer roster that head coach Kelly Graves hopes can make major progress in the coming weeks and months.
A year after the pandemic denied the Ducks — and everyone else — a traditional offseason, Graves wants to see his team get stronger and more cohesive prior to the formal return to practice in the fall. Pauses from the pandemic were debilitating for a roster as young as Oregon’s last year.
“It’s the offseason where they’re really developing their feel for the game, spacing, the ability to take people off the dribble,” Graves said. “It’s really important. We just want them to play.”
The Ducks went 15-9 overall and 10-7 in the Pac-12 during a rebuilding year, a credit to the resiliency of the program and its leaders. The winter was grueling, due to the rigors of a conference that produced both NCAA Championship game participants, and also pandemic pauses.
Then, the program was beset by injuries late in the season. Still, Oregon was able to win two NCAA Tournament games, reaching the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth straight postseason.
“I’m really proud of how we finished the season, certainly,” Graves said. “And I think that’s going to bode well. The fact we made the tournament, made some noise, won some games, will do this young team well.”
Though plenty of production returns, the Ducks who began offseason workouts Monday looked different. Veterans Taylor Chavez and Jaz Shelley opted to transfer, to Arizona and Nebraska, respectively. Also, associate head coach Mark Campbell, who was by Graves’ side as Oregon was remade into a Pac-12 powerhouse, was named last week as the head coach at Sacramento State. On Monday, Sacramento State announced Xavi Lopez, an assistant under Graves for the last four seasons, as Campbell’s new associate head coach.
With the loss of Chavez and Shelley, along with the graduation of seniors Erin Boley and Lydia Giomi, the changing of the guard is complete from the teams that made three straight Elite Eights from 2017-19, and were a favorite to contend for the 2020 national title. The Ducks will add two freshmen in the fall, but Graves said he wasn’t anticipating any other additions.
“I like what I have,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed a smaller roster. I think everyone feels more engaged.”
The 2020-21 team was expected to lean heavily on its three-point shooters, but evolved late in the year to be reliant on the “twin towers” of Sedona Prince and Nyara Sabally. Graves said he anticipates playing “more power basketball” next season, relying on Prince and Sabally along with returning freshmen Kylee Watson and Angela Dugalic.
“If they can just stay healthy and have a good offseason, I think we’ve got a chance to be really tough inside,” Graves said.
Sabally was injured in Oregon’s season finale against Louisville, as was guard Maddie Scherr. That was the fifth game that point guard Te-Hina Paopao missed due to injury; Graves said the entire roster was “good to go” to being offseason workouts this week, though Paopao and Prince were at a USA Basketball camp as the week began.
Though the Ducks will rely on their size in 2021-22, Graves isn’t de-emphasizing three-point shooting. He hopes the attention paid to the post players — along with better spacing of the floor gained through offseason pick-up play — will provide better looks than shooters like Taylor Mikesell and Sydney Parrish were getting last season.
Graves said he’s also looking for a player to emerge who can better “create their own shot, or a shot for somebody else” with the shot clock winding down, or late in a game. Incoming freshman Taylor Bigby could be a candidate, he said, along with Paopao.
Workouts that began Monday can continue into June, while the university is in its spring quarter. Then players will be on their own through the summer, playing pick-up games in which they’ll build the cohesion that would have been so beneficial last season.
As Graves put it: We just want them to play.