January 19, 2024 

Oregon ‘realistic’ about its up-and-down season

Notes from around the Pac-12

It’s strange to hear Oregon coach Kelly Graves talk about how “realistic” his team is, because in this season what’s realistic is certainly less than the Ducks’ championship standards.

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This season has not been particularly kind so far to a program that was a national title contender just a few short years ago. Oregon’s record is a respectable 11-7 overall and 8-1 at home this season. But decisive non-conference losses to Santa Clara and Portland and a shocking loss to Utah Tech before the holiday break set a tone for the Pac-12 season that started with losses to Oregon State and UCLA and USC on the road.

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Senior guard Peyton Scott — a transfer for Miami of Ohio who was going to play the role of experienced backcourt leader following the offseason transfers of Te-Hina Paopao (South Carolina) and Endyia Rogers (Texas A&M) — tore her ACL before the first media timeout in the first game of the season.

“We’ve had our ups and downs for sure, but honestly, I think we are really improving,” Graves said Tuesday, on the heels of a six-game home winning streak and home weekend sweep against Arizona and Arizona State. It’s definitely something to build on, though a task made tougher by the Ducks’ next trip to face No. 8 Stanford — where Tara VanDerveer will be looking to tie Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for all-time coaching wins — and a much-improved Cal squad.

“Even in the USC game [a 68-54 loss], we were right in it until JuJu [Watkins] took over late, but we did a good job on her defensively. We struggle to score. We don’t shoot the ball from range yet and we are giving back too much around the rim. But our team is playing hard and working well together.

”This was an important weekend for us. We needed those. Those were must-wins. We have an opportunity to win games and we’ve got to make the most of it.”

Graves’ assessment of his team’s offense is spot on. Oregon is averaging 64.2 points a game, ranking second-to-last in the conference, just ahead of Arizona State. The Ducks also rank second-to-last in 3-pointers made (86) and 10th in field goal percentage (.414). The sophomore duo of Grace VanSlooten and Chance Gray are averaging a combined 30.7 points, with Phillipina Kyei adding 12.5 points a game.
Graves expounded on his idea of what “realism” looks like.

“Our top seven or eight players, you are looking at three freshmen and three sophomores and (Kyei), who is still relatively young in the game,” Graves said. “The teams on top in the conference are older and they have veterans and we don’t have that luxury. The one person we couldn’t lose was Peyton, first because of her position and second because of her experience and third because of her nature, but we haven’t had her.”

The Ducks got no scheduling breaks this season. They will play Utah and Colorado twice along with UCLA and USC and Stanford and Cal.

“We are going to be tested,” Graves said. “I think the [transfer] portal caught up to us and with injuries and youth…but I’m really enjoying this group. All I can ask is that we compete and improve.”

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To the Brink

Stanford’s Cameron Brink is averaging an impressive 17.4 points and 10.8 rebounds a game this season to go with 3.41 blocks per game (No. 3 in the nation). She is doing it all in just 22 minutes a game. Just imagine what it would be like if she could spend more time on the floor.

Thanks primarily to issues with early foul trouble, Brink is averaging 3.58 minutes a game in the second quarter of Stanford games this season. In the fourth quarter, she is playing 4:14 minutes, but has not played in the fourth quarter in six of 17 games, an effort to distribute playing time during the Cardinal’s more decisive wins.

Brink played one minute in the second quarter vs. Colorado last Sunday and three minutes against Utah on Friday.

Brink has 37 personal fouls on the season with one disqualification. Forward Kiki Iriafen actually leads Stanford with 44 fouls. But watching Brink leave the floor for significant second-quarter minutes is becoming routine and not a sight that Stanford will want to see as the conference races heats up.

The Cardinal are better with Brink on the floor, there’s no question. She needs to figure out a way to stay there.

JuJu’s award juju

For nine of the 10 weeks of this season, JuJu Watkins has been named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. The only week she didn’t win — when the award went to Washington State guard Jenna Villa — USC hadn’t played. Watkins now has nine of USC’s 20 Freshman of the Week awards in history.

But make no mistake, Watkins isn’t just playing well for a freshman. As the conference’s leading scorer at 26.5 points a game, she has to be considered a front-runner for Pac-12 Player of the Year. The last freshman to be named Pac-12 player of the year was Stanford’s Candice Wiggins back in 2005.

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Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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