October 22, 2020 

Kelly Graves trying to keep things fun for new-look Oregon Ducks

Oregon Ducks head coach Kelly Graves is also having to face life without his star trio of Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, and Satou Sabally for the first time in four years

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University of Oregon Women’s Basketball head coach Kelly Graves speaks to reporters via Zoom on Oct. 21, 2020. Screenshot by Kim Doss.

It’s a new world in Eugene, Ore. Not just because of the coronavirus, which has thrown the world of college athletics into turmoil since last March, either. Oregon Ducks head coach Kelly Graves is also having to face life without his star trio of Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, and Satou Sabally for the first time in four years.

The Ducks return only one starter from their Pac-12 champion squad, forward Erin Boley. Boley accounted for just under 14 percent of the starting five’s points last season, leaving Oregon with a lot of minutes and points to make up this year.

That’s not to say that the cupboard is bare by any means. There may be a host of new faces, but those faces include the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation according to ESPN HoopGurlz. Five highly-rated freshmen are donning Ducks’ uniforms this year.

Added into that group of newcomers are Nyara Sabally and Sedona Prince. Both are sophomores by classification, although Graves refers to them as freshmen. Neither has played college basketball yet due to injuries.

With that many newcomers, Graves is adopting new coaching tactics to keep his young team engaged. Fun is the focus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

“Sometimes early on, you do some drills that may not be all that much fun,” Graves said. “So we’ve made most of everything that we do competitive. And one thing that my team and one thing that we recruit are competitors, and so they like to compete. So even if it’s just a shooting drill, we’re making it a competitive situation. And so when I make it fun, that’s what I mean.”

Making it fun is necessary this year in Graves’ estimation. Most years, he says he’s all about basketball. This year, there needs to be more communication and reassurance due to what he referred to as negativity in the world surrounding them. Like everyone, his players are dealing with the turmoil of the virus, racial strife, and the elections outside the gym.

Inside the gym, it’s slow going so far, fun or not. Graves has yet to see much separation between his players. Consistency is also a challenge with the young group, but he expects to be a “tough out” by the end of the season.

“It’s been a little roller coaster ride in terms of execution, as it should be,” Graves said. “Or as expected with nine new players and seven freshmen. Everybody’s just trying to figure each other out. Some days, we look like world-beaters. And then the next day, we don’t look so good. Each one of our freshmen have made an impact, have looked great one day and maybe not so good the next.

So I think that’s just what you have with this group, and I just hope that we continue to work hard and buy-in. And the more we get comfortable with each other, and the more the roles start to develop, I think it’ll be a lot better for us. So that’s why I think it might look rough early, and especially since we’re only going to have two or three non-league games before we jump right into the toughest conference in the country.”

Written by Kim Doss

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