After last season’s groundbreaking success that finished with the most wins ever in a season by an Oregon Duck basketball team, the off-season has brought unprecedented attention to the program.
There was some concern in the spring as two of the leading scorers declared for the NBA draft. That concern was short lived, as Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey pulled their names out of the NBA draft in May to stay with the Ducks. From a purely statistical sense, that means more than 30 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game stay in Eugene.
The off-season good news continued in June when point guard Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
Last season was filled with frustration for Ennis. A graduate transfer from Villanova, he played just 21 minutes total for the Ducks last season before a season-ending foot injury. Then, Villanova won the National Championship without him.
During August, the Ducks took a trip to Europe to play some overseas teams; NCAA rules permit teams to go on such a trip every four years. It would seem like this trip came at a crucial time, as they were able to get into competitive situations without Brooks who was out with an injury. The Ducks went 4-0 on the trip.
October brought more fanfare, as the Ducks hosted their annual “Block Party,” an open practice that allows fans to interact with players. This year’s Block Party consisted of three highlights.
First, Jordan Bell jumped over three fans for a dunk during the dunk contest. Second, the Ducks received their Pac-12 championship rings from last season. Lastly, Chris Boucher scored 22 points including four three-pointers during the team scrimmage.
An interesting twist in the off-season for the Ducks was a “secret” scrimmage they had with Oklahoma. Advertised but clandestine – a prime example of the “what happens in Vegas” motto – the Ducks flew into the Las Vegas for a game that no one saw and no one who played in it will talk about.
One can only imagine that the result was different from last year’s Elite Eight matchup: Buddy Hield, who scored 37 points in that game and dashed Oregon’s Final Four hopes, has since graduated and moved on to the NBA. While most of the NCAA rules for these scrimmages make sense (cannot count in win/loss record, no official statistics recorded), it’s difficult to understand the closed session and media blackout rules.
As November arrived, excitement increased along with the recognition that had previously escaped Oregon basketball. When Dillon Brooks was named to the pre-season all-America team, he accomplished something no other player in Duck history had done. The Sports Illustrated college basketball issue (Nov. 7) features Boucher on the cover and an article on the Ducks inside its pages. It’s the first time the Oregon basketball team has been on the cover since 1974. The magazine predicts a Final Four run for the Ducks this year.
All of this attention and anticipation will soon die down. These three questions will be answered when the season tips off in one week:
• Who starts at point guard? A year ago this was an easy question. It looked as though Ennis was the clear No. 1 at the position. Then Ennis got injured, which allowed Casey Benson to step in and run the offense with a nation-leading assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 5 to 1.
The other possibility is freshman Payton Pritchard. Viewed by almost everyone as one of the top 50 recruits in the country, Pritchard has thoroughly dominated Oregon high school basketball over the past four years.
Discussing Ennis with Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated, head coach Dana Altman said, “Ennis is our most versatile guard. When we go small, he is physical enough to guard bigger guys, and on offense, we plan on putting him in a lot of different situations.”
• No Brooks, No problem? Not having Brooks due to early-seaon injury woes, will seriously impact what Oregon does, but it will not limit their ability to win games. Without Brooks, I think Ennis will start at point guard. Benson is a pass-first point guard and the Ducks need a ball handler that can score more points. Ennis averaged more than nine points a game in his season at Villanova. I also think Dorsey will join Ennis as the other starting guard. I see Boucher taking the small forward spot due to his 34% shooting percentage from the three-point line. Underneath, I predict that Altman will start Bell at power forward and Kavel Bigby-Williams at center.
• How will the Ducks make the transition from hunter to hunted? Last season the Ducks were predicted to finish fourth in the Pac-12. They finished as Pac-12 champions and fifth in the final AP poll. The Ducks will probably be favored to win every game on their schedule this year. This is uncharted territory for a team that is used to pulling off upsets and winning games they are not supposed to win.
Brooks talked to Rob Moseley of goducks.com about the hype and expectations. “It was a good change. I think it gave us a different perspective on the season, on being more aggressive.” One thing is for sure: Oregon will not be pretending the attention does not exist. In an interview with Moseley, Altman said “We’re gonna talk about it … It is a new position. We have to focus on getting better every day, rather than where people expect us to be at the end of the season.”
Top Photo from Gary Breedlove
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