While the Oregon men’s basketball team fell just short of the pinnacle of college basketball this year, there is still a lot to be said of what this destined group did. I seemed to be the only person I knew who had them winning it all in my bracket, and I thought for sure that they would shock the world (and I would jump thousands of spots ahead in my ESPN Tournament Challenge rankings). It was not to be.
But while our beloved Ducks fell to eventual champ North Carolina by one in the semis, they can hold their heads high as they exit the year as a top-4 team — heady stuff, IMHO.
I took this moment in the afterglow of a momentous season to acknowledge six players who played vital roles in getting the Ducks to the The Big Dance. Kudos to:
Mr. Clutch: Dillon Brooks
When I handed out this award (an impressive 24-karat trophy with Dillon’s infamous “game face” engraved in it), DB told me that it was the greatest honor he had ever received (including this year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year) and began to weep uncontrollably on my shoulder while thanking me and hugging me for hours. Okay, maybe part of that story isn’t 100 percent true.
Brooks carried the Ducks through the regular season behind his elevated level of play in the second half of the season. Whenever the team found itself in a bind, and no one else was stepping up, they could always count on Dillon. He led the team in points per game, and his energy and intensity was contagious. Everyone else was noticeably better with him on the court. Thank you, Dillon. You are the #RealMVP.
Mr. Clutch 2.0: Tyler Dorsey
Dorsey was the MVP of the NCAA tournament for the Ducks, hands down. All year, Tyler hung around and put together quiet games. But by the time March rolled around, he was primed to carry the Ducks to victory with his astounding 23.3 points per game in postseason play. In that span, he shot 58.6 percent from the field and 55.8 percent from beyond the arc. He could not have peaked at a better time for the team or for himself. Because of his hot streak in the final eight games, he has decided to declare for the NBA Draft. Goodbye, Tyler. We wish you all the best in your professional career. Thank you for giving us a March to remember.
Most Improved: Jordan Bell
Jordan Bell was possibly the most lovable member of this year’s team because of his endearing personality and indomitable motor. But he has always had those things. What he didn’t have in his first two years with the Ducks was the stats.
Finding himself in a bigger role at the start of the season, Jordan stepped up in a huge way. He improved every single stat of his game from last year to this year and led the team in rebounds, steals and field goal percentage (well almost — Evan Gross shot 100 percent with the one shot he took).
Mr. Bell, we admire and respect you. There is no way this team would have found itself in the Final Four without you. If only you had stuck around for one more year!
Jack of All Trades: Dylan Ennis
You know you can ball when you are the second-smallest guy on the team and have the third-most rebounds. You also know you are important to the team when you have played in every game and played the most minutes per game. Dylan, you know you can ball. We are so lucky to have had you for that extra year and honestly, so are you, I mean, who gets six years of NCAA eligibility, really? Your fiery leadership this season was even more awesome than your fiery hair. Thank you.
Newcomer of the Year: Payton Pritchard
Not only does Pritchard have handles and a pretty sick jump shot, but he also had the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team as a freshman. There is a reason he earned the starting job early in the season and it showed in every game he played throughout the year. And to think we almost lost him to Oklahoma. Here’s to many more years to come in the green-and-yellow. Payton, “the ceiling is the roof” for your future at Oregon.
Ultimate Teammate/Sixth Man Award: Casey Benson/Chris Boucher
I honestly could not decide which of these players was more deserving of this award. Both guys overcame tough situations to rally the team this year. Benson lost his starting role after a few games and chose to be the best bench player he could be.
Chris Boucher lost his starting role early in the season, as well, but he also injured his ACL at the end of the season and was still an integral piece in the Ducks magical tournament run. He became (standing at 6’10”, quite literally) the Ducks biggest cheerleader after his injury and provided veteran wisdom from the bench that they needed to get to Phoenix. If I were to give these awards in person, there is no doubt that these two would gladly share this one, because that is who they are — selfless teammates in every sense.
The 2016-17 season was one for the record books and one for the ages. This season, I fell in love with my Ducks all over again. Not because they were so good, but because they were so great.
Whatever the obstacle, they overcame it. Whatever the task, they completed it. Whatever the goal, they accomplished it. This team was a championship team. A heartfelt and sincere “thank you” goes out to each of you.
Top Photo Credit: From Video