Michelle Smith Feature: Storylines from Pac-12 Women's Basketball Media Day
The first evidence of expectations has arrived in Eugene.
An unexpected Elite Eight run last season for a Ducks team that was led by a pair of freshmen stars, has changed the game for Oregon.
And the initial sign of that change came Wednesday when the Pac-12 Coaches’ Preseason Poll was released and the Ducks were sitting in the No. 2 position – with three first-place votes – for the first time in program history.
“The expectations, externally, I think, have changed,” said Ducks coach Kelly Graves. “I haven’t seen the whole poll, but I know where we’ve been picked by the other coaches, so obviously, we’re not flying under the radar now.”
Reigning national freshman of the year Sabrina Ionescu and sophomore teammate Ruthy Hebard are the headliners for a program that has now found its place in the spotlight. This is still a very young team with just two seniors and two juniors on the roster.
“We always set higher expectations on them than even those externally,” Graves said. “I think they, in the back of their minds, can do more and better.”
Ionescu and Hebard combined to average nearly 30 points a game last season. Hebard led the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage at 57.5 per game.
Ionescu said there is no talk of Final Four. Yet.
“We take everything one step at a time and live in the moment because you can’t overlook anything that you’re going through in practice or in games,” Ionescu said. “I think we really try to focus on what’s in our control.”
And the Ducks can’t control how they are viewed nationally. Only in their own locker room.
Graves said last year’s experience will be a springboard this season.
“It’s really good that we have so much experience now, because I think it will help them a lot. It’s great for us,” Graves said. “We appreciate each other every day in practice, and we want to get to where we were last year, and even further than that.”
Trakh is back
USC coach Mark Trakh said he has gotten “my dream job twice in the same lifetime.”
Trakh is back at USC after an eight-year hiatus and it might have taken a little magic to make it happen.
“Ok, this is corny, but my girlfriend had done this thing, this Japanese tradition where you burn a wish and it is supposed to come true, and I wrote down that I wished I could coach at USC again,” Trakh said. “In retrospect, I should have wished for winning the lottery.”
But Trakh, who was 90-64 in five years as the USC coach during his first run, is clearly giddy about his return to Troy. The Pac-12 has ramped up in the years since he left, and the challenge is going to be big to be able to put USC in position to compete at the highest level.
Track was coaching successfully at New Mexico State when USC came calling again last spring.
“I thought I was going to be in Las Cruces for another seven or eight years and then USC called and it was just a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity to come back and to coach these young women.”
Trakh’s first tenure at USC was marked by a multitude of player injuries. Trakh said he did a lot of examination after he left and made some philosophical adjustments to practice, including cutting down on contact drills, including taking charges.
“A team’s biggest ability is availability,” Trakh said. “You need to have your best players on the floor. Our players can tell you that I’m always telling them to be careful, to respect their teammates in practice. We want to keep everybody healthy.”
Trakh said he wants his new tenure at USC to be “about success on and off the floor. I want these players to have a good collegiate experience.”
Wynn settling in at Washington
During Trakh’s first days at USC, Jody Wynn was sitting next to him on the bench as his lead assistant. After a successful head coaching stint at Long Beach State, Wynn – who played at USC in the mid-90’s - is also now back in the Pac-12 at Washington, where the Huskies’ program is rebuilding following the graduation of stars Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor and the departure of head coach Mike Neighbors.
Washington, a team that was in the Final Four two years ago, finds itself in the interesting position of being chosen to finish last in the conference race.
“Honestly, I really don’t care,” Wynn said. “All we’re doing every single day is just trying to get a little better. Just a little better each day. That’s all we can ask of each other. It’s all I can ask of myself, my coaches and every player in the program.”
The Huskies are rebuilding their program after losing Plum, Osahor and Aarion McDonald, who transferred after Neighbors’ departed for Arkansas. Wynn said she knows this is going to be a transitional season for the program.
“Our job is to embrace what was before us and learn lessons of how to work extremely hard and achieve great things,” Wynn said. “We are going to be known for having a lot of heart, a lot of grit, a lot of toughness. I want people to recognize that we are playing with full hearts.”
Wynn, who has a 137-119 record as a head coach, said she came to Washington to coach in the best conference in the country.
“To me, that’s why I do what I do, to surround myself with excellence, to have incredible role models to look up to,” Wynn said. “I’ve watched them on TV. I’ve been recruited by them and coached against some of them. I really respect how they are classy people and they do things with integrity. And I wanted to be a part of that.”
All grown up now
Jordin Canada and Monique Billings came to UCLA as part of the top recruiting class in the country four year ago. Now they are on the precipice of their senior season for the Bruins, leading at team that has been picked to win the Pac-12 Championship.
“I don’t want to have any regrets, I don’t want any ‘what ifs’,” Billings said. “I want us to rise up to the expectations that have been set for us.”
Canada was the Pac-12 leader in assists and steals last season. Billings ranked second in rebounding and was fourth in scoring. The Bruins reached the Sweet 16 before falling to top-seeded Connecticut.
“We want to get to the Final Four. It’s a goal of ours, and this being our last year, I just want to embrace every moment and enjoy the last year here,” Canada said.
Bruins head coach Cori Close said her seniors have gained so much more than experience during their time at UCLA.
“They have gained so much perseverance and character,” Close said. “They believed in a vision that didn’t have a lot of substance to it when they started and at times it wasn’t fun. But I’m so proud of them.”
Arizona State will have a familiar face on the bench when they start the new season with the youngest team that head coach Charli Turner Thorne said she has coached in 21 years at ASU.
All-American Briann January joined Turner Thorne’s staff. January had one of the best careers in program history (she remains the program’s record-holder for assists and free-throw percentage and ranks second in steals and ninth in scoring) and has gone on to a distinguished nine-year WNBA career that includes a WNBA Championship in 2012.
“Bri obviously is a great offensive player, but working with our guards and being able to kind of coordinate the defense, I mean, she understands it as well as anybody. That's really exciting,” Turner Thorne said.
Sun Devils guard Courtney Ekmark said she is being coached by one of her longtime idols.
“Briann is amazing. Not only does she know what she's doing, but she's really positive and awesome to be around every day. It's really cool because -- I don't know about you, but I grew up watching ASU women's basketball, and she was on the teams that I used to watch when I was ten years old. So it's kind of come around full swing. It's really neat to be able to be coached by her.”
VanDerveer keeps going
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer signed a three-year contract extension last spring, punctuating a season in which she became the second coach in women’s basketball history to win 1,000 games and brought her team to the Final Four.
VanDerveer joked that she didn’t realize it was big news that she was sticking around. But people can’t help but ask her how much longer the Hall of Famer will coach.
“I’m very excited about our team and the future of the program,” VanDerveer said. “I’m really excited about our freshmen and our sophomores. My main job is to keep everybody healthy and improving.”
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