Oregon is going places, to the Sweet 16 and beyond

Within hours of pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA tournament's first week, Oregon was already in the air and headed home.

That freshman Ruthy Hebard was likely the envy of some of those onboard had nothing to do with the 20 points and 15 rebounds she put up to help beat second-seeded Duke on its home court. It had to do with Hebard being able to sleep in once the charter flight landed around 2:30 a.m. local time in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks, you see, returned to finals for winter term. And while some players faced the prospect of exams mere hours after landing, Hebard had only to turn in an essay by midday.

Not that the freedom to sleep made it any easier to do so.

"I tried to sleep, but I was too excited," Hebard said. "So I just closed my eyes and thought about the game."

Indeed, the Ducks have miles to go before they sleep. And promises to keep.

Preparing for the first Sweet 16 in program history, Oregon admittedly has a long way to go to catch Connecticut, the gold standard of women's college basketball and one of the teams it will share the court with in Bridgeport Regional.

But as they concern themselves first and foremost with Maryland (ESPN/WatchESPN, 11:36 a.m. ET Saturday), a blue blood in its own right, darned if the Ducks aren't making up ground in bunches these days. A No. 10 seed, they have traveled quite a road to get here.

Take that figuratively, if you'd like.

No team in the Sweet 16 played more games this season against teams on the top two seed lines in the NCAA tournament. The win against Duke was Oregon's first in seven such contests.

Or take it literally.

Once the remaining teams are settled in place for the regional semifinals, Oregon will have traveled roughly 7,500 air miles in the tournament. It almost goes without saying that is more than any other team. The three other teams in Bridgeport, Connecticut, have combined to travel fewer miles.

And that doesn't include the two hours a day Oregon spent on the highways in North Carolina this past week, set up by the NCAA at a hotel in Raleigh, nearly 30 miles from host Duke.

By the time Oregon next returns home, be it this week or after a stop in Dallas for the Final Four, the Ducks will have flown the equivalent in the postseason of a round trip from Eugene to Madrid.

Which is fitting enough, given that Spain is where this long odyssey in some ways began. It was there, on a tour this past summer, that Oregon coach Kelly Graves first got a look in competition at the recruiting class that might define his time at the school.

Oregon is also the only team in the Sweet 16 expected to start three freshmen. Hebard; Sabrina Ionescu, espnW's national freshman of the year; and Mallory McGwire accounted for 89 of the 145 points Oregon scored in wins against Temple and Duke in the first two rounds. And they are only half of the class, a group ranked No. 3 in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz, behind only Maryland and Baylor and ahead of a whole lot of programs more familiar with the Sweet 16 than the Ducks.

Beyond just the most recent results, the fact that the teammates could still stand one another after a season spanning from Spain to Starkville, Mississippi, from Honolulu to Durham, North Carolina, speaks volumes. That's partly in jest, but Oregon lost 13 games this season. And some of those freshmen, not to mention some of the veterans, aren't playing major minutes. All of that, travel included, can be trying.

"We truly do recruit character," Graves said. "I don't have any knuckleheads."

As always, the next coach to say he or she doesn't worry about character will be the first.

But again, the evidence in Oregon's favor isn't just a couple of NCAA tournament upsets.

Graves didn't run a typical mid-major program at Gonzaga, often pulling in major-conference talent from the Pacific Northwest at a time when programs at Oregon, Oregon State and Washington all qualified as underachievers. But it was still a mid-major program. He still lost recruits for the simple fact that they wanted a bigger stage than the West Coast Conference.

A lot more doors stay open when you come calling with the Pac-12 name, not to mention the Nike brand so synonymous with Oregon athletics. It would have been easy for a coach to look the other way on character. Yet from the moment he dismissed Chrishae Rowe, the nation's leading freshman scorer, before she ever played a game for him (Rowe was subsequently dismissed from Kentucky, as well, before sticking at Ole Miss), the words had credibility.

So Oregon waited, investing little in the 2015 recruiting class and waiting for 2016.

"I think when you go to a new program and you're trying to change it as quick as possible, because we really did have some talent issues early," Graves said, "If you want the short, quick fix, sometimes you compromise.

"We were able to really focus on that '16 class. We needed to crush it, and we did."

All six of the freshmen -- Sierra Campisano, Lydia Giomi and Morgan Yaeger in addition to the three already named -- took their official visit on the same fall weekend. From not-exactly-balmy Fairbanks, Alaska, Hebard recalled that she didn't know it could rain as much anywhere as it rained in Eugene over those days. But she also recalled the camaraderie. Graves called it one of the memorable weekends of his career.

"That might have been one of those times when I thought, 'Hey, we're going to have some special here,'" Graves said. "We knew they could play. But are they going to get along and love each other?"

"I knew we were going to be a tough out by the end of the year because our growth potential was greater than most teams because of our youth." Oregon coach Kelly Graves

They stayed together through a midseason injury to Ionescu, won a key game at Cal when she returned and upset Washington in the Pac-12 tournament. Then came Durham.

"I knew we were going to be a tough out by the end of the year because our growth potential was greater than most teams because of our youth," Graves said. "We didn't put an expectation on what we could do. I thought we were talented enough to be an NCAA tournament team. We weren't good enough, experienced enough to win a Pac-12 championship, I didn't think, so we didn't make an unrealistic goal of doing so.

"But we figured we were going to be really good by the end of the year."

The end of this run will not be the end of the road for Oregon, which will return about 95 percent of its points next season. But the Ducks have come this far already, so they'll put up some 3-pointers, rotate some big bodies and take their chances against the heavily favored Terrapins.

First, as Hebard figures out which movies she hasn't already seen in such settings, they'll wake up Thursday morning and get back on another flight across the country.

This team that is going places.