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WBB: Are Ducks headed in the right direction?

After a frustrating season quickly ends in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, can we expect bigger and better things next season?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 2019-2020 season will, most unfortunately, always live in infamy for Oregon women’s basketball.

So complete, so in-sync was that group that by the time they had bulldosed their way through the Pac-12 Tournament and secured a 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament that it began to look like a foregone conclusion that they would end up duking it out with top-ranked South Carolina for the national championship.

However, worldwide pandemics wait for no one, and we never got to see that heavyweight bout to decide who really was the nation’s best.

That certainly didn’t stop Oregon from capitalizing on the momentum of such an iconic season, as head coach Kelly Graves reeled in the undisputed No.1 recruiting class in the nation, with five 5-star players on board.

Though Women’s Basketball was denied their chance at the national title in 2020, it seemed only a matter of time before they got another crack at it.

The following season was an odd one, as the pandemic continued to rage across the country, games were canceled, arenas were empty, and it felt as though it was hard for anyone anywhere to build any sort of real momentum.

Still, the Oregon women found their way back into the Big Dance, and defeated Top 10 Georgia in the second round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Though they were soundly defeated by Louisville, the outlook seemed bright.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Sweet Sixteen-Oregon at Louisville Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This past season yielded more of a return to normality, with fans back in the stands and much more of a full schedule playing out.

The team of star recruits Graves had compiled was another year older and another year wiser, and on paper should have been ready to push the envelope even further.

However, they never quite seemed to reach the potential people expected of them.

In the Battle for Atlantis Tournament, the Ducks lost both games against the ranked opponents they faced, and later would suffer defeats to unranked opponents UC Davis and Kansas State.

Following another loss to #2 Stanford, the Oregon women finally began to show some fire as they embarked on an eight-game winning streak that included back-to-back wins over Top-10 opponents Arizona and UConn.

Unfortunately, the rematch with Arizona did not go the Ducks way, and they ended the regular season winning only five of their final 10 games.

After going 1-1 in the conference tournament, the Ducks found themselves back in the NCAA Tournament as a respectable 5 seed, with a chance to face the iconic Lady Vols of Tennessee should they win their first round matchup against Belmont.

However, Belmont would win 73-70 in double overtime and for the first time since they began their NCAA Tournament appearances in 2017, Oregon would fail to reach not only the Sweet Sixteen, but even the second round.

So with the team seemingly headed maybe not so much in the wrong direction, but certainly at least taking a wrong turn this year, how much can we expect from Oregon Women’s Basketball next season?

Nobody is going to wave their magic wand and produce another Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, or Satou Sabally. Stars must begin to emerge, and blue-chip recruits need to start performing on the next level.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament Semifinals Utah vs Oregon Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Of the five 5-star recruits in that 2020-21 recruiting class, only one, Te-Hina PaoPao, has averaged double digits in scoring in either of her two seasons in Eugene. Three of the five have never even averaged 5 points a game.

Sedona Prince, perhaps Oregon’s most highly-regarded player, dropped from an average of 10.4 points per game last season to 9.3 in 2021-22. Taylor Bigby, a top-30 recruit in the nation, couldn’t seem to stay healthy and when she did play she averaged only 2 points per game.

At a current glance, only PaoPao and Nyara Sabally have proven to be consistent scoring threats and notable All-Pac-12 recipients. A one-two punch is great, but if the rest of the team lags behind, the Ducks will not yield the kind of results they or the fans were hoping for. Sabally declared for the WNBA draft today, and several other players from that 2020 class have transferred out.

There is, once again, potential on paper for Women’s Basketball to be a powerful team next season. But if Oregon can’t take better advantage of its size in the paint and produce better stats from their heralded recruits, we could be in for another frustrating season and an early tournament exit.