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Preview: Top-ranked Oregon begins national title quest against Team USA on Saturday

The past, present and future of American women’s basketball collides as Team USA takes on No. 1 Oregon in Eugene on Saturday afternoon.

While Saturday’s contest will feature not-yet-past American stalwarts in Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, as well as present American stars Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray and Skylar Diggins-Smith, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu will be the star of the show.

By leading the Ducks against, and maybe even past, Team USA, she has the opportunity to undoubtedly prove that she is the future of women’s basketball.

No pressure, Sabrina.

Of course, Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard already are part of the present of Team USA, teaming up with UConn’s Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa to capture the 3×3 gold medal at this past summer’s Pan American Games.

But while this matchup may portend big things for American women’s hoops, it most immediately is about Ionescu, Hebard and Oregon beginning their effort to take care of some “unfinished business.”

So, what might we learn about the Ducks’ ability to fulfill their championship aspirations? Are they, in fact, the class of the Pac-12? Does Oregon have any exploitable weaknesses? What heights can Ionescu reach during her senior season?

Will the Ducks dominate the Pac-12?

Most preseason predictions suggest the Ducks will win the Pac-12, even as analysts recognize that they will have to navigate an incredibly deep conference to do so.

And, based on Team USA’s game in Palo Alto last Saturday, this task now appears tougher. Against the national team, Stanford impressed, holding their own throughout much of the contest before falling by 15 points, 95-80. Cheryl Reeve, Team USA’s acting head coach, admitted that the Cardinal “challenged” her team, stating, “What I enjoyed was the style of play. The situations they put you in, their movement, their ability to know they’re open and shoot without hesitation. I like that we were challenged.”

Oregon’s other chief rival for Pac-12 supremacy, intrastate foe No. 7 Oregon State, did not fare as well against Team USA, losing 81-58.

While early November exhibition games against the best women’s basketball players in the world cannot necessarily serve as the surest predictor of Pac-12 success, it seems likely that the Ducks would want to turn in the best performance against the national team.

And even if it the margin of defeat (or maybe victory!) against Team USA does not matter in the grand scheme of things, a competitive performance can inspire confidence, allowing Oregon to enter opponents’ arenas with even more assuredness as they attempt to claim their third straight Pac-12 regular-season title.

The Ducks play the Beavers in Corvallis on Jan. 26 and the Cardinal in Palo Alto on Feb. 24. There’s also an enticing non-conference matchup to get excited about: Oregon faces UConn in Storrs on Feb. 3.

Do the Ducks have a weakness?

After the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, the second guard position could be cited as a potential weak point for Oregon due to the graduation of the steady Maite Cazorla, now with the Atlanta Dream. However, the arrival of graduate transfer Minyon Moore bolsters Oregon’s backcourt. Last season, at USC, Moore averaged 14.8 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds, earning All-Pac 12 Defense honors along the way. She also has been named to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watchlist, an indication of the quality of player that Oregon is importing. Moore’s brand of attacking offense will make her a change-of-pace scoring threat, while she also can disrupt things on the defensive end.

Oregon’s frontcourt depth may also be amplified. Although Oregon already claims Ruthy Hebard, an efficient post presence named to the Katrina McClain Award watchlist, and Satou Sabally, a surefire “stretch four” and a Cheryl Miller Award preseason candidate, they might add the services of Sedona Prince.

Having committed to Texas as a top prospect in the class of 2018, Prince missed all of her freshman season in Austin due to a broken leg. Dissatisfied with her recovery experience at UT, Prince elected to transfer to Oregon. However, her eligibility for 2019-20 remains in question, as the NCAA still has not announced if it will honor her request for a hardship waiver, another example the NCAA’s inadequate transfer process.

Although she is not yet ready to return to the court, the prospect of the 6-foot-7 Prince reinforcing the Ducks’ frontcourt would seem to make them even more unstoppable.

What will Ionescu do for an encore?

Entering her senior season, Sabrina Ionescu has accumulated one of the most impressive résumés in women’s college basketball history. Last season, she won the Wooden Award and Wade Trophy, while also winning her second straight Nancy Lieberman Award. This season, she again is the favored candidate for these honors. She also seems likely to further establish herself as the NCAA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.

Nevertheless, on the matchup with Team USA, Ionescu admitted, “I’m 100 percent going to be starstruck.”

But Ionescu’s star already approaches that of her national team idols. She not only has put Oregon on the map but also has penetrated broader sports culture.

Like her Bay Area basketball inspiration, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Ionescu captivates the sports world because of her seeming averageness. As recently related by ESPN’s Graham Hays:

Ionescu recalls with some fondness that fans early in her time in Eugene occasionally asked her to take photos — not to be part of them, mind you, but for her to literally press the button on the camera and take pictures when they encountered the team. They assumed she was a manager.

But, again recalling Curry, Ionescu has rewritten the record book and begun to redefine the game. As she racks up more triple-doubles while conducting the nation’s best offense, Ionescu further will encourage young girls (and boys) to similarly strive to be box score-filling basketball savants.

Her legacy already is secure. However, a national title (and a victory over Team USA along the way) would make it sweeter.

Game information

No. 1 Oregon Ducks vs. Team USA

When: Saturday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR

How to watch: Pac-12 Oregon, Pac-12.com Livestream

USA roster updates: Due to the death of a loved one, A’ja Wilson will be away from the national team until their upcoming games in Argentina.