Ducks open with the heat turned on high
Kelly Graves won’t have to wait until Pac-12 play to find out if No. 11 Oregon has what it takes to live up to all of the hype.
The Ducks open the highly anticipated 2017-18 season and the preseason WNIT against Cal State Northridge at 5 p.m. Friday at Matthew Knight Arena.
The 16-team field includes No. 9 Louisville, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 24 Michigan. Drake, a potential second-round opponent for the Ducks, also received votes in the preseason Associated Press poll.
“I don’t know how we’ll handle it because we haven’t had to handle it,” Graves said of the pressure of that comes with lofty outside expectations. “We’ll see Friday night and during this whole (tournament).”
The Matadors were picked to finish second in the preseason Big West coaches poll.
Channon Fluker, a 6-foot-4 center, is the reigning conference player of the year after leading the Big West in scoring (18.0 ppg), rebounding (12.0 rpg) and blocks (2.3 bpg).
“They’re headlined by a marquee post player who could play for any team in our league and be among the best players,” Graves said of Fluker, who was fourth in the NCAA with 21 double-doubles last season. “So we’ll be challenged right off the bat, but that’s what you’re going to get in the preseason WNIT.
“You can kind of map out how you might finish and who you might play, but the reality is you’ve got to be ready for everybody.”
Fluker was the only player from a non-Power Five school invited to the USA Basketball tryouts for the U23 National Team.
Oregon sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu was the youngest player to make the U23 National team. The Americans won the gold at the Four Nations Tournament over the summer in Tokyo.
“Those are the top players in the country, so it was fun,” said Ionescu, who earned national freshman of the year and All-Pac-12 honors last season after averaging 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists with four triple-doubles. “We had trials and we practiced pretty much the whole day and were evaluated. It was just awesome being able to learn from Geno (Auriemma) and the coaches that were talking. The players were fantastic. You had to play 100 percent at all times or you were going to get beat.”
After leading the talented Ducks to the program’s first Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, Ionescu enters the season in the national spotlight. Graves said it’s a position his budding superstar has earned and that her teammates are embracing.
“The first few practices I realized how competitive she is and I look up to her because she doesn’t want to lose,” freshman forward Satou Sabally said of Ionescu. “OK, no one wants to lose, but she doesn’t take losses. She fights for every rebound, she dribbles very hard.
“You can tell that she wants it more than other people on the court. That’s something I want to copy and do.”
In the Pac-12 coaches poll, Graves’ young squad was voted to finish tied for second with No. 10 Stanford. No. 8 UCLA will carry the burden of preseason favorite again.
Right now the Ducks have to focus on navigating a challenging nonconference slate that includes No. 22 Oklahoma in the PK80 Invitational, a road game at No. 7 Mississippi State and a neutral-site game with No. 20 Texas A&M in Las Vegas.
If Oregon beats CSUN in the opener it is expected to host the Drake-Milwaukee winner on Sunday in the second round of the preseason WNIT.
“The energy (in practice) is great, there’s competition everywhere, I think we have a chance to be a pretty darn good team,” Graves said. “They have a lot of confidence, they enjoy each other. We’re starting maybe where we were midseason last year. Obviously that’s going to pay dividends for us in the near future.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball .