December 13, 2017 12:14:41 AM
STARKVILLE -- Kelly Graves knows the challenge Vic Schaefer faced when he took over the Mississippi State women's basketball program.
Graves understands rebuilding projects because he has done it throughout his career as a head coach. In stints at Saint Mary's (Calif.) and at Gonzaga, Graves developed programs that were among the most consistent in the nation.
While at Gonzaga, Graves' teams faced off against Schaefer when he was an associate head coach at Texas A&M. When Schaefer took over at MSU in 2012, Gonzaga and MSU played in the Hardwood Tournament of Hope in November in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. MSU lost to Winthrop, UC Santa Barbara, and UCF at the tournament as part of a 13-17 season.
"I spoke with him that first year. He had a good attitude," Graves said. "I watched them a couple of times in the tournament. They weren't very good."
Schaefer has won more games every season since then. Last season, MSU won a program-record 34 games and lost to South Carolina in the national title game in its first appearance in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
Graves has followed a similar path. After winning 20, 26, and 20 games in three seasons at Saint Mary's, Graves won five in his first season at Gonzaga. In 14 years at Gonzaga, Graves was 316-136 and led the program to seven NCAA tournaments, including two Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite Eight (2010-11).
Graves' latest rebuilding project has helped Oregon become one of the nation's elite programs. After winning 13 games in his first season, Graves has guided the Ducks to 24 and 23 wins in the past two seasons. A year ago, Oregon advanced to the program's first Sweet 16 and Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
This season, with all five starters back from that team, Oregon (8-1) has climbed to a program-record ranking of No. 9 in The Associated Press Top 25. The Ducks also are ranked No. 9 in the USA Today Coaches poll, which was released Tuesday.
At 6 tonight (SEC Network), Graves and Oregon will take on No. 5 MSU (9-0) at Humphrey Coliseum.
With sophomore guard Sabrina Ionescu and sophomore forward Ruthy Hebard, Graves has two players who were named to the Naismith Trophy watch list, which recognizes the nation's top players. Ionescu also was named to the Wade Trophy watch list, which also honors the nation's top player.
With seven players 6-foot-2 or taller, Oregon is the tallest team in the Pacific-12 Conference. Oregon also is tied with Oregon State for the youngest roster (four upperclassmen) in the league.
Graves said the program's rapid ascension has come thanks to the work of a great coaching staff and a lot of time spent on the road recruiting.
"It was difficult at first because we had such a long way to go and talent wise we weren't great," Graves said. "It needed a jump-start and I was happy to walk into that situation."
Graves also said he and his coaches were fortunate because there was a really strong recruiting class out west in 2016, so the program opted to focus all of its energy on those players. As a result, Graves said the Ducks were able to build relationships with players like Ionescu, Hebard, and Mallory McGwire, a 6-5 sophomore from Nevada. He said constant travel to games solidified those ties and helped establish Oregon as an up-and-coming program early on.
"I had an opportunity several times to leave Gonzaga, but there was only one place I ever would have left for," Graves said, referring to Oregon. "My wife was born and raised here. We have a vacation home not too far from Eugene, so we spent a lot of time in this area) I thought it was a gold mine."
That's why Graves and his coaches hit recruiting hard, much like Schaefer and his staff did in their first few years. He said his wife stayed in Spokane, Washington in his first year so his son could complete his senior year in high school. In that first year, Graves said he saw "a ton of games" and focused on recruiting. He said Oregon started to get commitments that first year that kept everyone going.
Those battles have become a little easier to win now that the program has had success. Graves said the name brand of Oregon allows him to get into homes of all of the top players in the nation. After missing out on players like Kelsey Plum, who opted to go to Washington, Graves is now getting those players to come to Eugene, Oregon. The class of Ionescu, Hebard, McGwire, and Sierra Campisano, a 6-3 sophomore from California, is similar in many ways to MSU's Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson in that it is elevating Oregon to new heights.
"I would tell anyone who would listen that this class is going to define our program," Graves said. "I think it is in the process of doing that right now. I didn't know that maybe it would happen this quickly, but I knew it was going to happen with this group. I have to give them a lot of credit. They believed in us. We didn't have a whole lot to sell in terms of accomplishments. They had to take a chance on us. We appreciate that they did and hope they feel it is paying off for the them."
Schaefer said many of the same things about the graduating class of 2017, which won a program-record 111 games. That's why he said Tuesday he is "anxious" to see how his team fares against an opponent that enters the game ranked nationally in scoring (third, 90.8 points per game), in field goal shooting percentage (sixth, 51 percent), in 3-point shooting percentage (fifth, 43 percent), in assists (sixth, 206), and in assists per game (fourth, 22.9).
Last season, MSU defeated Oregon 75-63 in Hawaii.
"He has done it really quick also," said Schaefer, who is in his sixth season at MSU. "They have had a lot of success pretty fast as well. He obviously has the recipe."
Schaefer said one aspect of Graves' "blueprint" is great point guard play. Courtney Vandersloot led Graves' Gonzaga teams from 2007-2011. She is the first Division I player (male or female) to score 2,000 points and to hand out 1,000 assists.
"Now he has good guard play. That is all of the guards," Schaefer said. "He really has all of the pieces. He has the inside game. He has size. I think his kids play extremely hard. They are a cerebral team. They are extremely smart. They know how to dissect you."
Steve Klees, a coach with the Northwest Blazers Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball program based out of Spokane, Washington, has known Graves for close to 20 years. He said Graves has remained the same through his days at Big Bend Community College, to his time as an assistant coach at Portland, to his stints at Saint Mary's, Gonzaga, and Oregon. He said Graves knows the players he wants in his system and he is a great evaluator of talent. More importantly, Klees said Graves is "very approachable."
"He is an easy guy to talk to. He has always been that way," Klees said. "In my interactions with Kelly, it has never been about him. His standard line is it always has been about the players. The players win the games, not the coaches."
Klees has 39 players from his organization playing Division I basketball. He said he bumps into Graves all of the time at events, which he said speaks to Graves' willingness to find players who fit his style. Klees calls Graves "players' coach" and said he is straight forward in his methods and he breaks his philosophy down so it is easy to understand. Klees said Graves doesn't complicate matters with hundreds of sets. He said he keeps things simple and allows the players to execute.
"He has made them better by letting them use their God-given talents within his framework," Klees said. "He puts them in a position where they can play and win the game.
"His kids play very hard on both sides of the ball."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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