While the Oregon men’s basketball team awaits a likely NIT birth following their collapse against USC in the Pac 12 Tournament semifinals, the Oregon women’s team sits comfortably back waiting on a definite NCAA Tournament berth and, possibly, a first for the ladies; a 1 seed.
While this is far from a guarantee it’s also not out of the realm of possibility and quite frankly the women of Oregon have a resume worthy of consideration. The juggernaut UConn Huskies have, as usual, locked down the top spot in the land with yet another undefeated regular season. The Baylor women are nipping at their heels, coming off their Big 12 regular season and conference tournament titles. The ladies of Louisville have done the same, and as such these three have earned three of those 1 seeds in the tournament without question.
But here’s where it gets a little more tricky. Oregon currently sits behind Mississippi State and Notre Dame in the AP Poll’s sixth spot. This would indicate the likelihood that one of those teams would nab the last available 1 seed. However, there is a common denominator between those two that while debatable also cannot be viewed as inconsequential, the simple fact that neither won their conference tournament.
In years past, the conference titles were often more of a chance for bubble teams to claw their way into the big dance by winning the tournament and ensuring at least a spot in the mix come selection day. The top teams, having already locked down their tournament spots and regular season titles, often would view the games as mere exhibitions and it wasn’t at all uncommon for the conference title holder to be knocked out early on by an underdog, if nothing else because they didn’t really have anything left to prove to their conference foes.
More recently, however, conference tournaments have become much more of a proving ground and the regular season title holders seem significantly more intent on making a statement by winning the tournament and solidifying their status as king/queen.
This also has become more of a contributing factor in the selection committee’s placement of top-tier teams, as having the killer instinct to not only prove yourself the conference’s best during the 10-11 week course of conference play but also the 3-4 day sprint to the finish line.
Oregon has 30 wins heading into the tournament. The Ducks are 16-2 in conference with 12 of those wins by double digits. Their only nonconference losses were to two of the teams that sit ahead of them (Louisville and Mississippi State), both at their respective buildings. Oregon’s lone home loss came to Stanford, a program that has over the last decade been the standard-bearer for the Pac 12 in women’s basketball, and in the conference tournament final, Oregon not only exacted revenge, but completely overwhelmed the Cardinal after simply shrugging off a hot Stanford start and an early deficit. Oregon has 9 wins over Top 25 opponents and is 5-0 at neutral sites this season.
Mississippi State has 32 wins and already boasts a victory over Oregon already so the conference tournament argument may not bode particularly well for the Ducks leapfrogging them. Notre Dame, however, still sits in front of Oregon despite not reaching the 30 win mark nor capturing their conference title. Granted, the Irish’s long-standing history of success in women’s basketball compared to the Ducks new meteoric rise to the top may well be paying dividends.
Regardless of the seeding Oregon has the talent to make the Final Four. Sabrina Ionescu is on a completely different level than majority of players across the country, already capturing the NCAA women’s all-time record for triple doubles less than halfway through her sophomore campaign. She has the kind of court-presence that instills confidence in her teammates and makes everyone around her better. Ruthy Hebard is a menace in the paint, commanding constant double-teams. Freshman phenom Satou Sabally is a matchup nightmare at 6-4 with range extending from the paint to well beyond the arc. And seasoned vet Lexi Bando, while still getting her footing back after a midseason injury forced her out of action for a number of games, remains one of the deadliest outside threats in the country. And Head Coach Kelly Graves, of course, needs no introduction, already having over 500 wins in his pocket and having taken Oregon from 13 victories to 30 in a matter of three years.
Last year, the Oregon men advanced to the Final Four despite not garnering a 1 seed and thoroughly dismantled the team that had nabbed that coveted spot to prove they belonged there. I believe this year’s women’s team could accomplish the same.
The question is, will they have to?