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Kelly Graves Is Digging Women’s Basketball From a Huge Hole

Photo: Rostislav Fursa/Icon Sportswire

Sometimes what looks good on paper doesn’t turn out to be so good in reality.

Former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny thought it was a good idea to hire former NBA and WNBA championship coach Paul Westhead to run the Ducks women’s basketball program. The women’s team needed some life and Westhead brought a marquee name and a unique brand of basketball to Eugene. But what was supposed to be a program-saving maneuver was almost a program-killing change. 

Westhead did bring in his unique style of play–but that included very little defense. Furthermore, he didn’t bring in quality players or wins to a program that once competed for Pac-12 titles.

In the meantime, and up in Corvallis, Scott Rueck built the Oregon State program up from ashes and turned the Beavers into a Top 10 team that’s on-par with Stanford. The Beavers were going one way and the Ducks were going in the opposite direction. It didn’t set well with the current Oregon athletic director Rob Mullins.

Oregon built a state-of-the-art facility in Matthew Knight Arena and the other two tenants were thriving. Dana Altman’s men’s basketball program is one of the best in the Pac-12 and Jim Moore’s volleyball squad is a regular in the NCAA tournament and was the national runner-up in 2013. And then there was the women’s hoops team.

Enter Kelly Graves.

Mullins found Graves up in Spokane, Wash. after 14 seasons at Gonzaga. During that time, the Zags won 10 straight West Coast Conference titles and lost just 12 conference games in his last 10 seasons at the school. Of course Mullins liked the success, but more importantly, Graves was exactly everything Westhead wasn’t.

Graves preaches fundamentals almost to a fault. His Duck teams work harder on defense than most teams and for a squad that played virtually no defense for four years, Graves’ style was a breath of fresh air. When Graves was hired on, it caught the attention of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Kelly Graves is a great guy and one of the best coaches in America,” Auriemma said. “Oregon is a place with tremendous women’s basketball potential and Kelly is the perfect person to lead the Ducks to the next level. I won’t be surprised when Oregon is competing for Pac-12 championships, and contending on a national level, in the near future.”

As with most coaching changes, there was a mass exodus of players. Graves himself even had to suggest to a couple of players that it would be in their best interest if those players transferred to a school more suited to their talents.

But Oregon was able to convince the most important piece to the puzzle to stay. Westhead didn’t do a lot for the Ducks, but he did recruit one of the program’s all-time best to come to Eugene. Jillian Alleyne is one of those players that would flourish in any system.

Getting one of the best players in the country to stay was Graves’ first of many victories at Oregon. Alleyne was dominating under Westhead with 17 points and 14 rebounds in her first two seasons. But in the first year in the new system, her numbers actually went up with 18 points and 15 rebounds per game. And most importantly for Oregon, Alleyne was also named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team.

Alleyne’s progress just mirrored the entire team’s progress under Graves. In Westhead’s last season, the Ducks were 4-27. Graves came in and Oregon was 13-17 in 2014-15.

Now the Ducks are fully entrenched under Graves’ leadership and are 10-0 this season, including a program-defining 79-77 win at North Carolina to open the campaign. Players such as Eugene’s own Lexi Bando from Willamette High and Lexi Petersen, one of the few holdovers from the previous regime, are completely buying what Graves is selling.

The offensive numbers are still there, but it’s the defense that is something is becoming more and more familiar as time goes on. The Ducks are scoring 88 points a game while giving up just 62.

Oregon hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2005 and if somehow Graves can get the Ducks into the NCAA tournament in just his second season, it should be one of the biggest stories in women’s basketball. 

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