Oregon’s No. 21 defense at the center of the season

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Oregon strayed from defensive discipline and rebounding last season, so that’s the Ducks’ focus this season.

“We were a very inconsistent ball team last year,” said coach Dana Altman, entering her 13th season with the Ducks. “Part of that was our rebound and our defense. Our defensive numbers weren’t good last year. Our rebound numbers weren’t good last year. And all the nights we didn’t film well, it really cost us.

Oregon finished last season 20-15 overall and went 11-9 in Pac-12 play. The Ducks have lost five of their last six regular season games.

And indeed, one of the areas of improvement for the team was defense. The Ducks allowed an average of 69.7 points per game last season, ranking them ninth in the Pac-12 in points allowed. They were 10th in defensive rebounds per game.

Oregon returns three starters, all seniors: point guard Will Richardson, forward Quincy Guerrier and center N’Faly Dante. Returning reserves include Rivaldo Soares, Nate Bittle and Lok Wur. Jacob Young, who had 23 points and 11 assists in a win over Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament, graduated.

The Ducks tagged 5-star prospect Kel’el Ware, a 7-foot center from Arkansas, and brought in Jermaine Couisnard from South Carolina and Keesawn Barthelemy from Colorado.

Oregon is ranked No. 21 in the preseason AP Top 25.

Richardson flirted with turning pro last season, but pulled his name out of the NBA draft in early June to instead use an extra year of eligibility with the Ducks this season.

This is good news for Oregon. Richardson led the team with 14.1 points and 3.6 assists last season.

Richardson was hampered last season by a fight with mono that kept him out of the final five games of the season and the Pac-12 tournament.

Altman said he was counting on Richardson to lead the team.

“He knows what we are trying to do. He saw both sides of it. I rely on that leadership,” Altman said. “He’s been great working with him and I’m glad he’s back. It’s a team game. He must bring his teammates with him.

Oregon went to Canada for a series of preseason shows in August. Former Duck Chris Boucher, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, was on hand to watch Oregon take on McGill University. The Ducks won hands down 102-48.

The trip also took Oregon to Ottawa, Hamilton and Toronto. It was a treat for three ducks who are from Canada: Ethan Butler from Toronto and Barthelemy and Guerrier, who are from Montreal.

“It helped us get a few guys together and the extra 10 days we had. So those things helped, especially with our late start to school. The NCAA won’t let us start until September 15th. Guys who are in school in August start a lot faster,” Altman said.

There was a downside. Center Nate Bittle sprained his left foot but was due back for the regular season. Bittle averaged 1.7 points and 1.9 rebounds and seven minutes per game last season.

Oregon is among the teams competing in the star-studded Phil Knight Legacy and Phil Knight Invitational tournaments on Thanksgiving weekend, both honoring the Nike co-founder.

The tournaments include 16 men’s teams and eight women’s teams and will be played in Portland.

Oregon men are included in the PKI field, along with Alabama, Iowa State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Portland, UConn and Villanova. The Phil Knight Legacy field includes Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Oregon State, Portland State, Purdue, West Virginia and Xavier.

The tournament features the top two AP Top 25 teams, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Gonzaga.

Oregon opens with UConn on Thanksgiving Day.

Oregon opens the season Nov. 7 against Florida A&M to kick off a four-game homestand at Matthew Knight Arena before heading north to play in the Phil Knight Invitational.

The team’s Pac-12 opener is Dec. 1 at home against Washington State. But the conference slate starts New Year’s Eve in earnest against rival Oregon State.

The season concludes with a pair of home games against Cal and Stanford before the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas from March 8-11.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/College-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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