Does the name Mercedes Russell ring a bell to you? She's the #1 women's basketball recruit in the country. In 2010-11, as a high school sophomore, she averaged 25 points, 15 rebounds, and five blocks per game en route to a state championship and being named state player of the year, and she's doing equally impressive things this season.
And she just happens to live in Springfield, Oregon.
Sure, she's taken a visit to Oregon. But she's also showing a ton of interest in the schools where she actually has a chance to be successful: UConn, Tennessee, Louisville, etc. (why do we think UConn scheduled a game at Matt Court next year). We know how this game goes. Last year's #8 recruit in the country, Shoni Schimmel out of Franklin High in Portland, showed no more than token interest in Oregon before landing at Louisville. I'm hoping the recruitment of Russell is different, but I'm not holding my breath.
Oregon is completely irrelevant in the world of women's basketball. Thing is, it wasn't always this way, and doesn't have to be going forward.
For much of the 90s, Oregon Women's Basketball was hardly irrelevant. With Jody Runge patrolling the sideline, the Ducks racked up a 160-73 record, including two conference titles and eight straight NCAA tournament berths. Nobody wanted to play in front of the hostile crowds at Mac Court. In fact, crowd support was so good in Eugene, that when the conference brought back the conference tournament, the event was held in Mac Court. Now, Runge was rightfully let go when she very publicly lost control of her locker room. However, she left Oregon a very good program, and it should not have been difficult to maintain the momentum.
So in came one of Oregon's greatest players, Bev Smith, to man the sideline, and the slow decline began. Like Runge, Smith was also on the sideline for eight years, but only managed to finish in the upper half of the conference twice, making only one NCAA tournament. That Smith stuck around so long is somewhat of a paradox of the athletic department, investing a lot of money into getting top coaching talent to revamp programs that had either never been successful (volleyball and softball), or simply nonexistant (baseball). The one sport that had a history of performance was left to languish, until back to back seventh place finishes forced a move.
That move, or course, was to hire Paul Westhead. I know what Pat Kilkenny was thinking here. Westhead was a big name hire, a coach who had won NBA and WNBA titles, and also been very successful in the mens' college game at Loyola Marymount. His style was an exciting run and gun, and people would flock to Mac Court to see the "Guru of Go" put triple digits on the scoreboard and lead the Ducks back to the upper half of the conference.
The problem is, of course, that it hasn't worked out that way. Westhead is 42-43 in two-plus seasons in Eugene, and 14 and 31 in conference games. The style hasn't been an attraction, its been a mess of a team that doesn't play defense and is unsuccessful at outscoring teams that are offensively superior (which is almost everyone). After this season plays out to its merciful end, it will mark seven years since Oregon has finished higher than sixth in the conference. Attendance at Oregon womens' games was once the envy of the conference. Now, they're lucky to draw 1500. People will say "give Westhead time," but at almost 73 years of age, Westhead was brought in to be a quick fix, not a long term solution. As it stands now, Scott Rueck at Oregon State is making far more progress much more quickly coming into a far worse situation.
Thing is, womens' basketball at Oregon shouldn't be a hard sell. Oregon has a great history, a national brand, and the best basketball facilities in the conference. Further, unlike some other sports, its not difficult to win by recruiting regionally. Oregon has a great deal of high school talent in girls' basketball, and Runge's success was getting the best players in Oregon (eg Shaquala Williams, Angelina Wolvert, Jenny Mowe), supplementing those with good players from California and that's enough to be a very good team in the conference. Right now, Rueck is getting the pretty good Oregon players. The really good ones, like Schimmel and Russell, are simply leaving the state.
There has never been a better time than now to hit the reset button on Oregon basketball. The Ducks would never put up with this in any other sport, why do so in one that we are actually historically good at. The new arena is a great sell. So is the new Pac-12 media deal, which will have games on ESPN and every game broadcast somewhere.
All that's left is to get the program itself in order. I know that Westhead is a good friend of Pat Kilkenny, but its time to admit that the great experiment failed. Oregon doesn't need a "splashy" hire. The Ducks need to build for the future. When you're looking at one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last decade, there is no quick fix. But getting volleyball, softball, and baseball to the point of being good were a lot tougher than this should be.
The Oregon/UConn game next year will almost certainly be the first Oregon women's game to be shown on ESPN under the new deal. The Ducks almost certainly have no shot to win. But it can be used as a platform to show that Oregon is back to being a player in the women's game.
Or they can continue the status quo, try to outshoot and outrun UConn, and lose by 60.
After all, the only way for spiral to continue further downward is for Oregon State to be seen as the better program. That scenario is dangerously close. What Rob Mullens does (or doesn't do) this offseason will make that determination.