EUGENE, Ore. -- Maybe it was their proximity to the unforgettable events of last season's Final Four that left the Oregon women's basketball team unwilling to talk about Tampa, site of this season's Final Four.
Figurative proximity for most of the Ducks, who held a six-point halftime lead in a regional final against eventual national champion Notre Dame, but literal proximity for Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard. The All-Americans were in the arena in Columbus last spring when Arike Ogunbowale hit back-to-back game-winning shots to secure the title. They marveled like the rest of us at the sheer spectacle.
So perhaps proximity explains why the Ducks won't say that a trip to Tampa is their goal this season, even though it is the logical next step for a program that aspires to a place among the elite. To be as close as any of them were, whether in the quiet desolation of their own locker room after Notre Dame's comeback in the Elite Eight or soaking in the frenzied hysteria in the air in Columbus, was to understand how far they still had to go.
"It shouldn't have been us. We didn't win," Ionescu said. "I definitely didn't think that should be us. I think I more saw that we could compete with teams like this and beat teams like this if we had stayed mentally focused and played that game the way that we should have."
Most of us will measure Oregon's upcoming season by where it ends. After back-to-back Elite Eight appearances by the Ducks, first as a Cinderella and then as a contender whose lead slipped away against the Irish, the Final Four remains a marker of progress. All the more with Ionescu, a national player of the year hopeful entering a third season that could end with her opting out of a fourth to pursue professional basketball.
The Ducks are no longer next; they need to be now. They need to be in Tampa.
Yet they aren't in any hurry to make the season all about Tampa. Even as he bit back annoyance at an uninspired practice recently, Kelly Graves didn't sound like someone stressed that a weekend in April will define a program.
"I'm not sure you enjoy the process as much that way, if all you're thinking about is getting to Tampa and winning a national championship or winning a Pac-12 championship," Graves said. "We just talk in terms of getting better each day. Now, we didn't get better today, but tomorrow I anticipate we're going to be better. We hopefully learn from this, and that will help us later on."
That hasn't always been his mantra. As the 2010-11 season approached, the stars aligned for Graves and the Gonzaga program he then coached. The Bulldogs had already shed the mid-major label to become a familiar postseason face. Courtney Vandersloot, the program-changing player who comes along only every so often, was entering her final season. An NCAA regional was scheduled just down the street from campus in Spokane, Washington.
Before every game, after listing the particular reminders associated with a given opponent, Graves added the same words on the dry-erase board: NCAA Elite Eight. With three exclamation marks. And a circle around it. A No. 11 seed, Gonzaga nonetheless won a regional semifinal in Spokane and then stood one game from the Final Four.
But in those hours between one game and the next, Graves found he couldn't keep the attention of his players. They had achieved the goal they chased all season. Then they lost to Stanford by 23 points.
As such, it's fitting that Oregon's season begins in Fairbanks, Alaska, about as far from Tampa as you can get.
"I don't think there's particular goals or expectations that we set," Ionescu said. "Besides trying to be the best that we can."
The best they were a season ago was good enough to win a Pac-12 title and earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, not to mention that halftime lead against Notre Dame in the regional in Spokane, of all places. Four starters return, with point guard Maite Cazorla, whom Graves called the team's most important player, and potential breakout forward Satou Sabally joining Ionescu and Hebard.
The Ducks are no longer the collection of newcomers thrown together and picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference in 2016-17 or even the group that returned to unfamiliar levels of interest and expectations in 2017-18. They are experienced enough now to home in on the details of Graves' rather nebulous system of measurement, be it a stronger left hand for Hebard or a greater emphasis for Ionescu on maximizing pace of possession.
"We've seen each other at our best and our worst, so you can tell when someone is working hard or stepping out of their comfort zone," Hebard said. "For me to reach the success I want and help my team this year, I'm going to have to get uncomfortable in preseason."
Oregon adds Notre Dame transfer Erin Boley, who sat out last season after moving west, and regains guard Morgan Yaeger, who sat out last season with a back injury. But the Ducks still saw a net outflow of talent, whether by graduation or transfer. Add an injury for freshman Nyara Sabally, Satou's highly regarded sister, and the Ducks start the season just nine deep.
Much like Notre Dame was when the two met last spring.
"We saw what it takes to win a national championship by playing them," said Ionescu, who has tallied an NCAA-record 11 career triple-doubles, including one in Tuesday's season opener. "They didn't have a 13-player roster, either, so I think it's kind of fuel for the fire and motivation for us."
So much comes back to that second half when the supposedly understaffed Fighting Irish raced past the Ducks, who were not only outscored 44-28 but also outrebounded 34-13 while making just 26 percent of their shots. As close as Oregon was, that was the distance remaining.
"I think about it a lot still," Hebard said. "When I'm lifting or at practice, I'm always thinking about, 'What is [Notre Dame forward] Jessica Shepard doing today?' And hopefully I'm pushing myself more than she is [that day], so I can maybe get her back or get someone else back who is trying to get our spot."
The clock is ticking. South Carolina won a national title with A'ja Wilson. Louisville didn't let Angel McCoughtry, Shoni Schimmel or Asia Durr pass through the program without at least one trip to the Final Four (and Durr is still in the running for a national title). Mississippi State got there twice with Victoria Vivians.
To be the kind of national program that Graves wants for Oregon, to be on the same level as those other perennial contenders chasing UConn's résumé, the Ducks can't let a gift such as Ionescu pass through Eugene without at least an appearance on the biggest of stages.
Just don't expect to hear them talk about it. Their goal is to be better than a season ago, better than a week ago, better than a practice ago. That was the lesson of coming so close last April.
If that coincides with a trip to Tampa next April, well, all the better.
"I don't think it's a dodge," Graves said. "Come on, we know we're good enough to do it. Our kids understand that. They know. But if that's all we're playing for, it doesn't make the experience more meaningful. I think it makes it far less meaningful."