Dreary days have come to Eugene. The glowing, summer sun that represents the hype and hope that Oregon Duck football brings, is gone. For all intents and purposes the season is done, despite the fact that there are seven games left. As the losses compound, the panic is palpable. With three losses before the second day of October, a perplexingly long injury report and a quarterback mess, the Yellow and Green are desperate for the rainbow that is coming after the rain.
Here is that rainbow – four weeks from today, the men’s basketball team will begin their season. One that seems destined for a March Madness run to Glendale, Arizona. Sure, that opening “game” against Northwest Christian on November 7th is not going to reveal much, but the squeaking of Nike high-tops on the hardwood of Matthew Knight Arena will be a welcomed sound.
And now, four reasons why you’ll see the Fighting Ducks in their first Final Four since 1939:
1. The Quack Attack: In the 2015-2016 season the Ducks won 31 games. In over half of the games they won they scored over 80 points. The high-flying Ducks dissected their way through March with the offensive precision of a Globetrotters’ exhibition.
A combination of crisp jump-shots and athletic dunks brought the Ducks a Pac-12 title, a Pac-12 tournament title and a No. 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. From that team, five of the top seven scorers are returning this season. With last year’s experience and another off-season of development, the offense will be more potent this year.
2. Dillon Brooks: The 6’7 junior is coming off of a sophomore season where he averaged 16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. In 38 total games last season he never played less than 20 minutes in a game, and played more than 30 minutes in 28 games. His three-point shooting led the Ducks as they throttled Duke and stormed into the Elite Eight.
The first-team all-Pac-12 selection dipped his toes in the NBA draft waters before deciding to come back to Eugene. While the news of his return is exciting, an inopportune foot injury means that all those minutes are going to go to someone else for now.
As Brooks recovers the team will have to find a way to win without him. However, the lineup changes and the experience other players will receive in his absence will serve the Ducks come tournament time. There is no reason to think that the Ducks will fail to put a competitive team on the floor while he recovers; they can be patient, and when Brooks returns they will have a lineup that can beat anyone.
3. Versatile Roster: If anyone has wondered about the secret to the Ducks’ progressive success since Dana Altman took over, it is in how he builds his teams. He is developing a successful pipeline of junior college recruiting (the last two Junior College Player of the Year award winners have committed to Oregon), which allows him to take developed and talented basketball players and get valuable minutes out of them immediately.
Additionally, he has eight players 6’7 or taller lacing up for the Ducks. Altman continues to recruit players who are physically capable of filling different roles. Brooks, for example, is listed as a forward, but – depending on the match-up situation – was able to play in the back court as a guard. Last year, Altman’s rotation had 9 players getting minutes in at least 21 games.
Along with the returning players from last season, contributions will come from 2016 the JCPOY, Kavel Bigby-Williams, and Dylan Ennis, a sixth-year-senior transfer from Villanova.
While the true tests will not come until November, a pre-season exhibition trip to Spain showed the roster capable of putting up points, even without Brooks. During the trip the Ducks won all four games and scored more than 100 points in each one. While no team wants to start their season missing such an elite player as Brooks, the Ducks still have a roster capable of winning.
4. Strong Schedule:
The Ducks are not going to go undefeated. In fact, they could lose several games before Christmas. That is no reason to panic. The schedule will put Oregon in position to be in tough games before contests that really count arrive.
In Oregon’s first month they will travel to Texas for a game against Baylor, a team that made it into last year’s NCAA tournament, play Valparaiso, a team that won 30 games last season, and fly to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Invitational, where there will be three top-25 schools among the participants (North Carolina, UConn and Wisconsin).
For Oregon to win that tournament they will most likely have to beat two of those teams in addition to Georgetown.
The big picture, Oregon fans, is to not focus on winning 30 games between November and February, but rather on reaching the team’s top level of play when the Pac-12 tournament tips off in Las Vegas on March 8th. Additionally, even if Brooks is out for extended time, the Pac-12 schedule does not start until late December. Oregon closed out last season by winning 11 games in a row before running into a red-hot Oklahoma Sooner team. Altman and the Fighting Ducks have one last step to take, and this is the year they can take it.
My prediction for the Ducks? Get out the ladder. On April 3rd, as the most loveable mascot in college sports makes a confetti angel on the court, and “Mighty Oregon” is played by the band in the stands, Dana Altman hands the scissors to Dillon Brooks and the Ducks cut down the nets.
Top photo Gary Breedlove