With Saturday’s loss at ASU, Oregon’s men’s basketball team has now lost eight of its last ten games, with the last three coming by a combined 6 points against the top three teams in a very deep Pac 12 Conference; in fact, UO’s last six losses have been by a combined 20 points. But if the Ducks want to get into the NCAA tourney they need to start turning those near misses into victories, beginning with their game against rival OSU this Sunday. This season already feels “lost” to most UO fans because of the inverted “V” curve that charts this year’s season – a blistering 13-0 start followed by a 3-8 swoon in conference play.
Yet despite their 3-8 conference record, it’s still too soon to count out the Duck’s NCAA tourney chances. Oregon, somehow, has an RPI ranking of 41; Sagarin has the Ducks ranked 36; Pomeroy ranks them 32; and ESPN’s BPI has them at 23; but the Ducks need to learn from their defeat Saturday and forget what they thought about themselves during their scorching 13-0 run out of the gate to make it happen. That blistering start may have been fool’s (green and) gold for Dana Altman’s Ducks. There is no denying that Oregon is a fast, athletic team, loaded with gifted offensive players – most notably, their ability to shoot the ball. It is also undeniable that UO too often failed to display the defensive intensity that is essential for any team with hopes of being invited to the dance come March.
So the Ducks need to learn a lesson from Saturday’s defeat and use it to right their season before it’s too late. That lesson was on display during both halves of the ASU game. The Ducks need to stop thinking that they can simply beat teams by jacking up threes, a strategy that paid off early during their impressive start in wins like the one in OT at Mississippi and against BYU. Granted, those were BIG wins, but they seemed to have lulled the Ducks into believing that they could prevail simply by relying on their marksmanship beyond the arc to outscore opponents. Yet once conference play began, and the shots didn’t always fall, they saw their season turn into close loss after close loss – live by the three, die by the three.
In Saturday’s heart-breaking loss, after a torrid and nearly historic comeback against ASU, we saw the blue-print for this team going forward and having success in their remaining games leading up to the NCAA tournament. (Justice demands that I pause here and remark on the amazing – heroic even – second half performance by Young, who played like he was wearing a red cape and an “S” on his chest in the second half; simply phenomenal.) If you didn’t see the game and only looked at the stats and saw the number of three point plays UO had you’d think this was a typical near-miss by a UO team that got “hot” from beyond the arch in the second half and almost shot their way back to victory – but that would be terribly misleading.
In the second half, what we saw was a team that played hard on both ends of the court, a team that didn’t rely solely on treys to erase a 20 point deficit. The Ducks used their quickness and superior athleticism to press full court on defense for much of the second half, which, frankly, they should’ve never stopped doing with the depth Oregon brings to the table. And on offense, Young didn’t just settle for knocking down threes, instead he attacked the basket with ferocity, earning threes the old-fashioned way; hit mid-range jumpers, and got to the free throw line. In short, Oregon played hard for all 94 feet and made up for their lack of inside presence with frenetic, in your face, offense and defense – and that is what Oregon needs to do for the remainder of this season.
If this team picks up where it left off Saturday, and continues to bring their athleticism to bear on both offense and defense, and for all 94 feet, they still have a chance to nab an invite to March Madness, and maybe make some noise in it. NCAA tournament history demonstrates that teams that can shoot the ball can go deep in the tourney if they play hard on the defensive end. But if the Ducks fall back on bad habits, hoping to three-point shoot their way to victory, it’ll be a very disappointing end to what was once a very promising season. So, starting with this week’s game against a talented and dangerous Oregon State team that has already beaten the Ducks, the NCAA ball is firmly in Oregon’s court – and they better use all of it.