Looking Back at Oregon’s Best Basketball Season in 78 Years

Bob Rickert Editorials

We all remember the losses and as coach Dana Altman said, ‘This one’s going to hurt for awhile.’ But there’s so much to be proud of this team for, and so much to look ahead to.

The pre-season

Oregon started the season with Chris Boucher on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Injuries hit them early, and they played without Dillon Brooks through the pre-season and into the Maui Classic. And just when they were getting him back they lost Boucher for the UNLV game at home and a few more. The Ducks lost twice in the pre-season, and it seemed they got stung by the national media for it more than they should’ve.

Brooks was a cornerstone to an outstanding season
Photo credit: from Video

A loss at Baylor is not an issue at all for any team based on how good the Bears were this year. And losing to Georgetown without Brooks doesn’t seem like it should’ve been that devastating either. But Oregon wasn’t playing with swagger yet, and the pollsters punished them.

In a way that probably helped this group who grew accustomed to playing from behind, playing as the underdog and taking it out on anyone they played the rest of the year. It may have taught them one of the most important things in sports – to believe in yourself even if others don’t. This group certainly did from that point on.

Huge moments

None bigger than Brooks hitting a 3 in late December to hand UCLA their first loss of the season and take Oregon to 1-0 in conference play. A Bryce Alford miss on a free throw opened the door after Payton Pritchard hit the biggest shot of his young career to cut the UCLA, a deep three-ball in his first Pac-12 conference game.

Payton Pritchard’s game face on display
Photo credit: from Video

Altman didn’t call a timeout, and they ran the same play they’ve run a hundred times in practice. Pritchard reverse handed him the ball, Brooks went behind him, launched the shot over Lonzo Ball, and Oregon was on the map again after losing two early games. Brooks later hit another game winner at Cal. It seemed whenever he had the ball late in the game, heroics were bound to happen.

Oregon continued to roll through conference play and with first place on the line, Oregon absolutely destroyed Arizona at home on February 4th. The only matchup between the teams in the regular season, Oregon was absolutely dominant. They played a near-perfect game and showed they’d arrived.

Oregon had lost to Colorado in Boulder. Arizona was 10-0 coming into that contest. Brooks said later that was the game that turned things around for the Ducks. After that game they bonded together and dug in on defense on every possession. And the wins kept coming.

Oregon won it’s way to the conference final but lost Boucher in the semi against Cal. His loss likely cost them a better shot at beating Arizona again, and that loss sent them to the Midwest region where they ultimately faced Kansas.

Beating Kansas was an enormous victory for this Duck team. The Jayhawks were one of the tourney favorites, playing in front of 18,000 fans just 20 miles from their own campus. Oregon took the game from them at the start and never really looked back. Hall of Fame Kansas coach Bill Self said himself that the better team won.

Stars and rising stars

Jordan Bell, Brooks and Tyler Dorsey clearly separated themselves as the stars of this team by the time the NCAA tournament rolled around. But others like Dylan Ennis emerged in the national semi-final, and that’s a huge part of why this team won a record 33 games this season.

Chris Boucher creating a defensive wall
Photo credit: Craig Strobeck

Ennis and Boucher will be gone for  sure, but before anyone gets ahead of themselves with players leaving early for the NBA consider this: None of them are projected to be first-round picks. If not, there’s no guaranteed contract and it’s likely they’d wind up in Europe. Yes, all three of them.

No guaranteed contract means they shouldn’t go. In fact, GMs are saying the 2017 draft is the deepest since 1984 (when Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olojuwon and John Stockton came out). Bell might sneak into the 28-30th pick. All of the other spots appear sewn up according to GMs. Look for all three to declare for the draft, go to the pre-draft camps, and then see where they might go.

But if they leave to go in the 2nd round, it’s insanity. Especially since the 2018 draft is thought to be one of the softest in a decade. All three could be first-round picks if they stay one more year just based on how much softer the draft will be. It should make for a very interesting April, May and June this year. Yes, Dorsey could go to Greece, but that’s also … insanity.

Defense leads the way

Oregon’s match-up zone gave teams fits all year, and as they morphed back and forth from a zone to man-to-man in the middle of possessions, teams who hadn’t seen it were confused, and the Duck defense led to easy buckets for their offense.

Altman’s ability to install this defense and get players to play cohesively within it together means they have a chance to win every game they play. Bell and Boucher blocked shots at an alarming rate again, almost 5 a game combined, and Oregon’s defenders learned to send the offensive player to the corner of the glass instead of straight at the rim to give him an angle to block it.

Don’t overlook these guys

Keith Smith scores.
Photo from CBS Video

Keith Smith’s floor game grew by leaps and bounds this year. He became a reliable passer, defender and outstanding at the top of Oregon’s zone press. He’s going to be a force for Oregon going forward.

Pritchard hit a ton of huge shots and turned it over less and less as the season rolled on. His game is going to grow enormously in the next year or so.

MJ Cage red shirted this year, but expect him to arrive ready to go next year. He’ll be a big factor on the front line whether Bell returns or not.

Paul White is a guy nobody talks about. The transfer from Georgetown has great open court skills, can shoot, is long and can defend the way Smith does.

Kavell Bigby Williams will undoubtedly be asked to do more next year. With or without Bell, his minutes are likely to explode. His defensive game improved, he got more comfortable in the Oregon offense and his continued growth is going to be critical to Oregon’s success next year.

Your watercooler notes

Oregon enters next season with the nation’s longest home winning streak at 42 games. They won all 17 at home this year and finished 16-6 on neutral and road courts.

Coach Dana Altman’s 597 career Division 1 wins leaves him just a couple short of Slats Gill (Oregon State). He’ll likely wind up about 32nd on the all-time list after next season and well within striking distance of John Wooden (Indiana State, UCLA), Mike Montgomery (Montana, Stanford, Cal) and Ralph Miller (Wichita, Iowa, Oregon State).

Bob Rickert
Portland, Oregon

Top photo credit: from Video

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