Oregon is three wins away from the Final Four. Given the Ducks have already run off 8- and 17-game winning streaks this season, the Final Four feels like the Oregon’s destiny. But we’ve been here before. The Ducks have made the Elite Eight six times, including last year, and only made the Final Four once, but that was during the FDR administration in the middle of the Great Depression. So – what is different this year that will allow the Ducks to reach the Final Four and maybe even win the National Championship as a 3-seed, when they fell short as a 1-seed last year?
National parity and depth of the Pac-12 last year created perfect situation for Ducks to secure a 1-seed
Even though Oregon was a 1-seed last year and a 3-seed this year, they are better this year, even after the Chris Boucher injury. Last year the Ducks landed a 1-seed largely due to the parity at the top of college basketball. The 1-seeds last year had a record 23 combined losses at the start of the tournament.
Additionally, Oregon benefited from a deep Pac-12 last year that was full of solid teams that provided Oregon with a bunch of quality wins that pushed the Ducks to the 2nd-best RPI in the nation.
Oregon actually had a better record entering the tournament this year than last at 29-5 vs 28-6. Unfortunately, because the Pac-12 was full of bad teams this year (I’m looking at you OSU, UW, WSU and ASU), Oregon’s RPI suffered, dropping their seed. Additionally, the dominant play of the top teams in the country, combined with Boucher’s injury, plus a likely bias against the west coast caused the Ducks to fall to a 3-seed.
Signature wins this year better prepared Ducks
Last year’s Ducks had a bunch of quality wins (12 top-50 RPI wins) but no great wins. This year’s team has only 5 top-50 RPI wins but two of those came against legitimate Final Four contenders Arizona and UCLA. Moral victories are overstated, but losing very close games to the Bruins and ‘Cats – their first game without Boucher – provide valuable experience in how to go toe-to-toe with the best in the country.
When the Ducks ran into Buddy Hield and Oklahoma last year, that was the first time Oregon had played a legitimate top-10 team all year. The Ducks were overwhelmed by the Sooners’ talent early on and never really recovered.
If Oregon does not overlook a hungry and athletic Rhode Island team today, Oregon will likely face Louisville in the Sweet 16 and potentially Kansas in the Elite Eight. Unlike last year, Oregon has already beaten teams the caliber of Louisville and Kansas. Coach Dana Altman, Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Tyler Dorsey, and Casey Benson are much better prepared to face teams of this talent on this stage.
Oregon has the offensive firepower, strong defense
This year’s team has the offensive balance and talent unlike any recent Oregon team. Brooks is talented enough to win Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year despite stiff competition from three likely top-5 NBA picks. Brooks is a more mature, consistent player this year than last.
While Oregon misses the length and athleticism of Dwayne Benjamin and Elgin Cook, the offensive growth of Bell and Dorsey more than make up for those losses. New addition Payton Pritchard has been a great offensive spark and Dylan Ennis, is providing the type of leadership and poise you would expect from the oldest player in the NCAA tournament.
Four of Oregon’s five starters are averaging 10+ PPG this year and all five starters have had multiple games with more than 18 points. Teams that are too reliant on one player to carry their offense frequently have a hard time making a deep tournament run, as one cold night and that team is done. This has been one of Oregon’s problems in the past, including last year with Brooks having to carry too much of the offensive load, Joseph Young the year before that and going back to the Luke Ridnour & Luke Jackson teams from the early ’00s.
In addition to a balanced offense, the Ducks boast Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Bell and a group of long, athletic wings and guards in Brooks, Dorsey and Ennis. Oregon has a top-25 defense (Jim Leavitt please help our football team get even close to that type of defensive efficiency), a benchmark many experts cite as a prerequisite to being Final Four material.
Oregon better positioned but odds are they still fall short
Despite being arguably the best team Oregon has ever assembled – even without Boucher – the odds are against the Ducks reaching the Final Four. No Pac-12 team has made the Final Four since Kevin Love was at UCLA almost a decade ago. Oregon has the type of coach, talent, experience and chemistry to beat the likes of Rhode Island, Louisville and Kansas or whoever they face in coming rounds, but it will be tough.
Louisville has the size, length and depth that could create match-up problems for Oregon’s thin front court. Kansas has the type of steady senior leadership in National Player of the Year front-runner and senior guard Frank Mason and top-shelf talent in likely top-5 pick Josh Jackson, to win the title. And even if Oregon misses Louisville or Kansas, Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State all would be very tough match-ups for the Ducks.
Even if the odds are against the Ducks, they have the type of grit and talent that could just land them in the Final Four anyway and break a 78-year drought.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Top Photo by Gary Breedlove