It started when Mario Cristobal and his football team obliterated Utah in the conference championship game in December, putting a bow on the careers of Justin Herbert and Troy Dye. Next came Kelly Graves and the women’s basketball team, who made the in-conference competition look like a bunch of mid majors. Third and finally we saw Dana Altman and Payton Pritchard clinch the men’s conference title in the last regular season game.
Three conference champions in three sports: the Ducks owned the Pac-12 in 2019/2020. A combined regular season record of 62-11 with a home record of 39-0, the three Ducks were rarely challenged.
But how did each team win its respective championship? What is coming for the two who still have games to play?
After a heartbreaking loss to Auburn in Week 1, the Ducks rebounded to win 12 of their remaining 13 games, including the conference championship against Utah and a stunning Rose Bowl over Wisconsin. Herbert and Dye led the offense and defense, respectively, and each had outstanding years.
Freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux sacked opposing QBs an impressive 9.5 times en route to collecting freshman All-American honors. Sophomore left tackle Penei Sewell earned the Outland trophy for the best interior lineman, while surrendering just two penalties and zero sacks.
This was the year the football team really started to look like what Cristobal had promised upon taking the job, a run-and-shoot offense. In combination with a defense better than any that had worn Duck uniforms in decades, it led to a new version of the Oregon Ducks. This version out-muscled opponents, didn’t allow big plays and scored slowly.
After struggling down the stretch, the Ducks entered the Pac-12 championship as underdogs to Utah, who would likely have made the CFB Playoff with a win. The Ducks dominated Utah 37-15, behind CJ Verdell’s 208 rushing yards and a whopping six sacks by the defense. After years of mediocrity, Cristobal brought Oregon back to prominence, securing the first of the three championships.
Sabrina Ionescu and company were the most dominant basketball team in America this season. With wins over nine current Top 25 teams, including six by double digits and two by 30+ points, no other team competed against the best as frequently or as well as the Ducks.
Coach Graves got the team out to a hot start against… TEAM USA. The American national team hadn’t lost a game to a college team in 20 years and hadn’t lost at all since 2014. After that, the Ducks lost only two games throughout the regular season on their way to a 28-2 record.
The team proved to be resilient, after losing on the road to Arizona State (as all three of the teams did) the Ducks won the rematch by an astounding 31 points. Ionescu became the first college player ever to rack up 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. She ranks first in school history in points scored, and is the presumptive national player of the year.
The rest of the team featured fantastic shooting by the likes of Taylor Chavez and Erin Boley as well as great rebounding by every player. The Ducks used this incredible combination of scoring and rebounding, along with an elite defense, to smother opponents and keep them out of striking distance.
The Ducks won the conference after going 17-1 in Pac-12 play. They swept the No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the conference, once again proving their utter dominance all season.
The Ducks are poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, likely earning a No. 1 seed, and playing in the Portland regional. Graves could cap the careers of the two highest-scoring players in school history with a championship run, and the Ducks will be in contention to do so.
Coach Altman had quite the job in the off-season. He had made an unlikely tournament run after switching to a lineup consisting of four players over 6’7 and Pritchard, but he had little returning front-court production, and after transfers and draft declarations he had a mostly empty roster.
After signing a class that ranked No. 4 in the country with two five-star frontcourt players, Altman brought in a couple transfers to bolster the veteran presence on the roster. It looked like the Ducks would be contenders again, but early-season injury troubles to Shakur Juiston and the up-in-the-air eligibility of N’Faly Dante led to the already undersized Ducks struggling against larger opponents.
CJ Walker didn’t impress, and Altman made another season-changing decision: small ball. The previous year had turned around when the Ducks switched to their long, rangy lineup, and many thought that would be the new norm, but Oregon did not have the players to utilize the sort of defensive mindset that led to success the year prior.
Pritchard, Will Richardson, Anthony Mathis, Chris Duarte and Addison Patterson changed the mindset from block shots and get good looks, to force turnovers and push the ball up the floor. The new look Ducks struggled at times, but ultimately were able to clinch the conference with the help of Juiston and Dante late in the season.
Altman has the Ducks poised for another deep tournament run. With a pace and space attitude in 2020, Oregon is new look and could threaten for another Final Four.
What It All Means
Winning a conference football championship and both basketball championships in the same season is rare for a major program. Only one other program has ever pulled it off: Ohio State. With the Ducks in such elite, if not sparse, company, it is fair to ask if Oregon is one of the premier sports schools in America?
Spoiler alert; it is.
Yuma, ArizonaTop Photo Credit: Tom Corno
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in the financial technology industry in Bozeman, Montana.
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