The Oregon women’s basketball team hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in nine seasons. The last time it finished with a winning record was seven years ago.
Consider the task arrayed before first-year Ducks head coach Kelly Graves.
But this is nothing new for Graves. When he began his last job, at Gonzaga back in 2000-01, he went 5-23 and didn’t win a game in conference. And, as Graves is fond of saying—don’t let that record fool you—GU wasn’t that good.
By the time the dust had settled on 14 seasons in Spokane, however, Graves had created a perennial power. The Zags have won the last 10 West Coast Conference championships, and have made six consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. They captured the nation’s hearts in ’11, when Courtney Vandersloot led them on a rip-roaring ride to the Elite Eight. The Zags sandwiched that run with trips to the Sweet 16 in ’10 and ’12. Last season, their No. 6 seed was the best in program history.
All of which goes to say: given Graves’s track record and the pieces he’s already fitting into place in Eugene, reclamation seems more a matter of when.
As well as a matter of how.
Graves’ Gonzaga teams frequently sold out the McCarthey Athletic Center, which holds 6,000. Their fans loved Graves’ teams. Practices were open to the public. Once games ended, win or lose, players came back on to the court to sign autographs. Weekend trips to Costco for Graves often turned into impromptu interview sessions with inquisitive members of the community. That was just in July.
This is the sort of following Graves intends to implement in Eugene, whose denizens are only too eager to oblige. This is a town hungry for success in women’s basketball. Last season, Oregon women’s basketball averaged 1,038 fans per home contest, among the lowest turnouts for Pac-12 teams. But that can quickly be countered by the 5,852 fans who flocked to games during the ’99-00 season, when the Ducks last won a conference title. That March, some 9,000 showed up for the Civil War showdown against Oregon State.
An easy conclusion: Winning always helps.
So does the right fit. For Graves, this is home. Two of his sons were born in Oregon, during his time as a University of Portland assistant. His wife was raised in this state. As Graves told reporters during his introductory press conference, “I think it was fate.”
Maybe Geno Auriemma—he of the nine National Titles at UConn—has the best take. In a statement to goducks.com, in the wake of Graves’ hire, Auriemma said, “I won’t be surprised when Oregon is competing for Pac-12 championships, and contending on a national level, in the near future.”
Let the party begin.
SLAM: The first press release following your hiring at Oregon said the UO fan base was “itching for conference championships and NCAA Tournament contention. Have you gotten a palpable sense of that feeling since April?
Kelly Graves: Now that the kids are back, I’m seeing people around town that know who I am, and are excited. It’s a gold mine here in terms of potential fan base. They did support this program a while back. The product’s gotta be good—I think that’s a big key, and I think it’s just a matter of time. I really do. One thing I believe, I don’t know if I’d say I’m ‘pretty good at it,’ but I enjoy talking and meeting fans one-on-one. I’m very accessible. That helps, that’ll grow the fan base. At the same time, I want our players to be accessible. We’ll let players know who we are.
SLAM: The story goes that you spent three hours with UO athletic director Rob Mullens and senior women’s administrator Lisa Peterson in a hotel room in Nashville during the Final Four interviewing for the Oregon job. What sort of things came up in that conversation?
KG: It’s really funny. I interviewed them as much as they did me. I’d just come back from recruiting in Europe 30 minutes before. I asked if I should take a shower before heading to the room. I was in such a great spot at Gonzaga, and I wasn’t looking to leave, necessarily, or “climb a ladder.”
It was a lot of dialogue—I never looked at it as an interview. I’d been to Matthew Knight Arena to see some games, but I’d never been on the Oregon campus, so I had questions about that and the organization that was in place. We talked about the vision for the program, what they expected, what I expected. We both have similar visions and goals for the program. I could tell it was a good match.
But I really liked Lisa and Rob. They were terrific. I liked their attitude, their vision. It was a good match right from the start.
SLAM: You’ve endearingly referred to your assembled staff of Mark Campbell, Jodie Berry and Nicole Powell as “All-Stars.” What makes it such a special collection of coaches?
KG: As a staff, you want to have all your bases covered. You want to bring as many skills and abilities and personalities as you can. I want every player on my team to relate to someone on the staff. Someone they can confide in and feel comfortable with. I’m a 51-year-old male, so some players won’t feel as comfortable around me.
First and foremost, these three coaches are great “people persons.” They are amazing communicators. They have high morals and great character. As a coach, loyalty is the number one trait an assistant can have. I would have no hesitation in turning the team over to any of them, at any point. I know they’d have my back. Nicole has great credibility. She’s a tremendous recruiter, and I’ve already seen the benefits of that. (Powell spent the 2013-14 season as a Gonzaga assistant.) She’s still young and learning. Jodie is all the details, day-to-day; a real mother hen type. Mark is a go-getter. A tremendous recruiter, and he knows the league. (Campbell spent the past four seasons on Scott Rueck’s staff at Oregon State.) He’s a great developer of talent.
SLAM: You hailed the leadership shown by these players during summer workouts. Who in particular stood out, or stood up?
KG: Jillian [Alleyne] is the obvious one. Not vocally, but she leads by example. She’s so consistent in her effort every day, and people see that. When your best players work the hardest, it’s easy to get the others in line. Lexi Petersen has been great. Our team really looks to her, and she’s working hard, showing a great attitude. And she’s got game. Those two really stick out. Off the court, I’ve been impressed with Amanda Delgado. She seems to keep the team organized and on task. They all bring a little something. But those three have stood out.
SLAM: This team has considerable offensive talent. (Oregon averaged 93.2 points in ’13-14, far and away tops in DI.) But defense was one of the first things you addressed in your opening press conference—that if you can excel on the offensive end, logically, you should work just as hard on the defensive side. How has this team bought in to that mentality?
KG: We can certainly become better. We were 343rd in the country last season. (The Ducks gave up 89.1 points, 2.5 points more than San Jose State, which finished second-to-last in DI.) They’re buying in—it seems like they want to be good defensively. I haven’t worked with them a lot, only a few practices this summer—we were only allowed two hours a week with them during summer—and they were almost all defensive-oriented. They better buy in, or our team won’t improve. Defense is a constant, not a variable. Great defense builds a team, more than any other aspect of the game. Defense takes five people working together. You have to have everyone engaged, everyone involved, or it doesn’t work. The strongest teams play great defense. We’ll continue to stress that, and we’ll make great strides.
SLAM: Self-motivation is something you often look for in recruits. Have you seen that reflected in this Oregon roster you’ve assumed? What have you worked with them on?
KG: Offensively, we can still make great strides. The system that Paul Westhead ran, the players were asked to do one or two specific things—then they fit it all together. If you were a three-point shooter, you sprinted down, spotted up and waited for the point guard to penetrate. [Alleyne] would run rim to rim, get rebounds, receive passes over the top into the post.
What we try to do is teach the whole player. I think that’s why we’ve had five WNBA draftees the past five years (at Gonzaga); that’s because the WNBA knows what type of players they’ll get. They’ll be taught every stage of the game, including the mental side. That’s my goal. We want to create great players. Lexi Petersen can become a defensive stopper, because she’s so long and athletic—versatile. But it’s going to be quite a challenge.
SLAM: You recruited BCS-level talent to Gonzaga. But the lack of a football team was a constant topic that you had to overcome. College Gameday has already come to Oregon for this current football season. Does that type of excitement create a recruiting boon?
KG: It’s funny. I always laughed at people, because we’d get hammered on that at Gonzaga. I’d tell recruits, You’re not playing football, you’re playing basketball. Now I’m here and I see it, and I get it. It’s not just the fact that there’s a football team. It’s the school spirit on display. And everything else. That’s the best part of it. Recruits come on unofficial visits just to see what it’s like. It does really make it special. Now I know what they’re talking about. Our players are here for basketball, but the football is pretty cool. This is mecca, so to speak.
SLAM: Last season, Jillian Alleyne (21.4 points, 16.2 rebounds) was honorable mention All-America. Chrishae Rowe (690 points, 21.6 per) set a UO freshman scoring record. Did you have to do any recruiting to keep them in Eugene, or were they on board from the start?
KG: Yeah. No question. I thought from day one, they were receptive and excited. They wanted a change, they wanted discipline, they wanted to be held to a higher standard. They wanted to guard people. Right from the beginning, I haven’t detected anybody not on board. We just have to change the culture. It’s not that it’s broken, it just needs to be changed to where we expect success. We work hard enough that success will happen. We hold ourselves accountable on and off the court. Excellence isn’t something that happens on the court.
When I was coaching Team USA (Graves coached the U18 girls in ’12 and the U19s in ’13), I coached UConn kids, and they’re more than great basketball players. Theyr’e great kids. They’re hard workers. They get what it’s all about. We want winners off the court. Everything we do is focused on winning. “We strive for perfection, but excellence will be tolerated” is one of our sayings. I think the future is real bright.
SLAM: Lexi Bando is perhaps the best known of this season’s newcomers. Can she contribute right off the bat?
KG: It’s funny you say that. All the WNBA players we had at Gonzaga, it wasn’t like they were WNBA-level kids out of high school. We developed them. We got the right players. I don’t always feel I have to recruit the best player, but the right player; one that fits our system, our attitude, our culture, everything we’re about.
Talk about Lexi. She’s a winner. She won two state championships, and she came up big in both games. One of them was against Mercedes Russell (now at Tennessee). As a junior in the title game, Lexi completely outplayed Russell. She has an edge, she’s unselfish, she’s ornery. Everything Lexi is about is what we want our program to be. She was a perfect fit at Gonzaga. (Bando had signed a letter of intent to GU last November; after Graves left in April she was released from it and signed a grant-in-aid at Oregon.) Now, I’m happy she’s here. I don’t think a lot of local players have come to Oregon in years. Lexi’s kind of a legend in these parts. I’ve already seen that. I call her a “culture creator.” She’ll help create what we want to be about.