It's March and for college basketball fans, that mean Madness is coming.
When the women's tournament begins in a little over two weeks, the University of Oregon and star guard Sabrina Ionescu should generate a lot of attention. She led the Ducks to last season's Final Four and was named national player-of-the-year. Ionescu then delayed a professional career to return for her senior season.
It appears it was a good decision.
Number three ranked Oregon is primed for a championship run and the accolades keep growing for Ionescu, on and off the court.
It could be argued that one memorable day last month justified Ionescu's decision to come back for this final season.
The day started with her speaking to a worldwide audience at the memorial for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. Kobe had become Ionescu's friend and mentor over the past year.
Hours later, Ionescu was in uniform, playing for the Ducks — and making history. With a third-quarter rebound against Stanford, Ionescu became the first player ever in Division 1 college basketball — woman or man — to have at least 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career.
Those watching Ionescu that day saw the kind of poise and focus that's not common in most 22-year-olds. But for those who've watched her for years, like Oregon associate head coach Mark Campbell, it wasn't surprising.
"Her whole career and her whole life," Campbell says, "every time there's been an opportunity to seize the moment, it's what she's done."
A house the Ducks built
Coming back this year also allowed Ionescu to have a proper senior send off.
Last Sunday, after her final regular season game, she stood on her home court in Eugene, Oregon, and scanned the sellout crowd of 12,634.
"Wow, the house that we built. This is crazy!" she told fans.
"Coming in my freshman year," Ionescu said, "and seeing all these empty seats and having my friends be able to sit wherever they want. Now they're all fighting over who texted me first for tickets!"
Indeed, she and her teammates – she always mentions teammates – took a not-very-good women's team four years ago, and made it elite. This season, the women's team averaged just under 11,000 fans at home games in Matthew Knight Arena. On the road, they were must-see in their Pac-12 conference. According to Oregon head coach Kelly Graves, the team boosted attendance in their opponents' arenas by 75%.
Ionescu has driven that attention, evidenced by her seemingly endless haul of awards and records. The ones that set her apart as a generational college basketball talent, include the 2k, 1k, 1k achievement, and, what appears to be an untouchable 26 career triple doubles – 26 games where she had double figures in points, rebounds and assists. The next closest college player is Kyle Collinsworth, who racked up 12 triple doubles playing for Brigham Young University. Fewer than half of Ionescu's total.
"She's changing the game," says Graves. "There's no player in the history of college women's basketball that's getting the attention she is."
Graves says it's "not just because she's a great player."
"She's getting crossover support from some of the greatest men's basketball players in the world. Icons...and that just does not happen," he says. "So she is, I think, making an impact for our sport that I think will be long lasting."
Passing and vision
Go to any basketball game and listen.
When you hear a cheer, normally that means someone scored. Crowds don't tend to cheer the pass that comes right before — the assist.
Meaning, Ionescu is seriously under-cheered.
Yes, she scores a lot, whether driving to the hoop or launching long-range three-pointers. And she rebounds a lot. But Ionescu leads the NCAA in assists. And while that may not get her extra cheers, the nifty passes do generate their share of ooohs and ahhhhs, often from her legions of approving young female fans.
Like 12-year-old Grace Winebarger. She and her father drove nearly 300 miles, one way, to watch Sunday's game.
"I just like how she sees everything," says Grace, adding, "how she can visualize how things are going to happen."
Oregon coach Campbell confirms that Ionescu's greatest skills are her passing and court vision. He was the first college coach to watch her, when she was a skinny 9th grader in Walnut Creek, California. Campbell remembers a player flying around the court in a saggy basketball jersey.
"You couldn't have predicted that she would become this," Campbell says. "It's not like the first time I saw her I said 'there's the future of women's basketball.' What you saw was a young kid that had just an incredible competitive spirit and a unique bball IQ. That's a gift."
It's a gift honed by hard, hard work which, Campbell says, Ionescu learned, in large part, from her Romanian immigrant parents.
Not always a smooth climb
Ionescu's climb to the top of women's college basketball hasn't always been smooth.
She told the Washington Post last year that her middle school in California initially didn't have enough girls for a team. When her request to play on the boy's team was denied, she was told she "should be playing with dolls."
"Seriously," Ionescu says, "word-for-word."
Instead of playing with dolls, she played with other girls, who she recruited to play.
"It's funny now," Ionescu says, "I wish I could go back and just tell those people they had made a mistake."
She continued her climb, and, as is often the case with elite, laser-focused athletes, Ionescu at times lacked patience with fellow players who were less gifted or put less work into the game.
Oregon head coach Graves told The Athletic, "She was a tough teammate early on. If someone didn't have the same level of commitment she did, she couldn't understand why."
Even last season, during Oregon's run to the Final Four, Ionescu snarled at a teammate during a loss late in the regular season. The following day, the team met with a leadership expert and that reportedly helped smooth the rough edges.
"From there, we became closer as a group," Ionescu was quoted as saying.
Now, she's as fiery as ever on the court. But deeply affected by Kobe Bryant's death.
She spoke recently about her decision to return this season, to complete "unfinished business" — winning a national championship.
"That was really the goal, up until obviously a month ago," Ionescu said. "And then you kind of realize that there are so many more things that are important besides that final outcome. And nothing's really promised, nothing's guaranteed."
If it sounds like Ionescu has new perspective, she does. But she also has that thing. The rare ability to seize major moments.
And that should give every upcoming tournament opponent cause for concern.