The Oregon basketball season opened with palpable excitement. Less than a week later, fans saw their Ducks get dominated by an unranked team (Baylor) and their top-five national ranking disappear. The ship appeared to be righted after a win over Valparaiso, a high level mid-major program.
The Ducks took the momentum from that win and flew to Maui for the Maui Jim Invitational, one of the premium early-season tournaments in NCAA basketball. Oregon took the floor and found themselves down 17 points at halftime. Once again, an unranked team (Georgetown) beat the Ducks and sent the Final Four threat to the consolation bracket. Wins over Tennessee and Connecticut followed, but disappointment is certainly the prevailing theme through six games.
That being said, here are four things to be thankful for with Oregon Basketball:
1. Dana Altman’s extension: Duck fans everywhere should breathe a sigh of relief that head coach Altman was given a well deserved raise and contract through the 2023 season. This increases the probability that Altman will spend the remainder of his career in Eugene. There is no better coach for this program. Since arriving at Oregon he has taken Oregon to four NCAA tournaments, and 154 overall wins.
The often criticized Athletic Director Rob Mullens recognized Altman’s value, calling him “one of the top coaches in the country.” His ability to recruit both elite in-state recruits and top national prospects is changing the landscape of basketball recruiting. He recently received a commitment from five-star player Troy Brown Jr . Among the schools that Oregon beat out were Kansas, Ohio State and Arizona. In an interview with ESPN, Brown said “its a great organization, would love to play with coach Altman as my head coach.”
Coaching and recruiting are not the same skill, which is what makes Altman such an important piece of Oregon basketball. Altman has not been fooled by the rankings and pre-season awards for his team. Refreshingly, he recently told the media “We’re not playing very well … shows how far we have to go, 21 turnovers, didn’t execute down the stretch … I think we can get a whole lot better.” This was after the Ducks won a game.
Altman’s expectations are very high for his team, and his mindset is on winning games. When asked about the Maui tournament experience he said “we’re not having much fun right now.” And in response to the performance of his team on the floor, ”we’ve obviously read too many press clippings.”
He does not pump his team up to the media, either. He has spoken about needing to be more demanding, and after the Georgetown loss told the media “it doesn’t matter because we are unranked now.” While the loss to Georgetown was unfortunate, the second-half adjustments brought the Ducks all the way back into the game, and his full court press in the closing moments almost put the Ducks in a position to pull out the win.
2. Payton Pritchard: Many may never be aware of how close one of the best high school basketball players in Oregon history was to going somewhere else. Fact is, he WAS going somewhere else. Pritchard had given his verbal commitment to the University of Oklahoma, the school where both his parents graduated. In an interview with espn.com, he said of Oklahoma “I just think it’s a great fit … I loved the community there.” While it is not crystal clear what led him to de-commit, he did so and a month later chose the Ducks. “I get to play for my home city. I get to rep Oregon.”
While only a freshman, he has wasted no time making an impact on a team that returned four starters from last season. His teammate Jordan Bell had this to say: ” I love playing with Payton. He is a super aggressive guard.” So far he is averaging 10 points a game. While the 12 turnovers he has through the first five games are more than Altman would like, he led Oregon in points against Georgetown with 18 in his 31 minutes coming off the bench. The following day against Tennessee, he was in the starting lineup. Of all the recruiting “wins” that Altman has been piling up since arriving in Oregon, Pritchard is one of the most impressive and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
3. Healthy Dillon Brooks: Brooks’s return to the floor in the Georgetown game brought smiles to all Oregon basketball fans. The result spoiled his return as he appeared rusty and only made three of his shots. He didn’t start the game, and Altman is clearly being careful to monitor his minutes. The following day he played 25 minutes and led the Ducks in scoring with 17. He looked completely recovered, moving quickly and dynamically all over the floor.
His confidence seems to be there as well. Justifying his status a pre-season All-American was his three-pointer with 22 seconds left to win the game for the Ducks. As Altman has mentioned, it’s not just the statistical contributions that make Brooks an important part of the team, but “He offensively and defensively can play a number of spots.” The Ducks missed his leadership, poise and emotion in his absence. Now that he is back, the team appears to be making quiet strides towards playing better.
4. Schedule: Heading into their game today with Connecticut, the Ducks were ranked 23rd for strength of schedule. Despite a 4-2 record and a drop down in the polls, Altman and Oregon clearly would rather put the team on the floor with tough opponents than just stack up the wins. Altman has had teams lose early non-conference games before. This season is not different in that regard; each year his teams play better when the season ends than when it starts. Oregon could have entered Pac-12 conference play undefeated but they would have no idea how good they are. Six games into this season, they know what they’re good at and what they need to work on.
Top Photo By Gary Breedlove
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