Mac Court will see it's final men's hoops game for the 2008-09 season as Oregon hosts the Oregon State Beavers this Sunday. At stake for the Beavers is a potential trip to the postseason to mark a special season under coach Craig Robinson. For the Ducks, the team is playing for pride. Oregon already has the winless monkey off their backs with a big win against Stanford last week but have they really turned the corner as a team? Was the win against the Cardinal just a lucky win against a team that has no Pac-10 road wins this season?
As I sit back and really think about the game this Sunday, my mind drifts back to how I felt at the Kansas State game earlier in the year. We were able to pull out a close victory in the final minutes of that game, not unlike the Stanford game. The vibe surrounding the team was very different back then. Most people had a sense of cautious optimism. We easily wrote off early season losses as "bumps in the road" or "losses against good teams". Yes, we were young but there was something there talent-wise and we thought that would get us through. Little did we know what would come following our non-conference schedule. The win against Kansas State gave us hope! After all, they were good last year and were supposed to be good this year despite the loss of Michael Beasley. They are firmly on the bubble at the end of the season with a 20-9 record. How different our paths would take.
The Pac-10 season starts and things go from bad to worse quickly. Game after game, practice after practice, interview after interview, the Ducks seem to be spiraling down into the abyss with no end in sight. The losses pile up, the veterens get benched, Ernie gets ejected, the team hitting 0-18 in conference seems like a formality. All we have to do is play it out, blame Ernie for being a horrible coach, hope he gets fired in favor of (insert Mark Few or any other flavor of the month coach here) and we move on to the new arena in a couple years. Oregon basketball hits rock bottom.
Stanford comes to town. Just like that win against Kansas State a few months ago, Oregon looked like a team. For the first time in an eternity, the passes were crisp, the defense was solid, the team was trying their best for an entire game. They didn't hit all of their shots and still had mental breakdowns but suddenly the team was a team to be proud of. No, not because they won but because you could see them finally putting aside individual aspirations and buying into the team concept. TP, known his entire career as being a spot-up shooter, became almost point guard-like. He spread the ball around, made crisp passes and didn't try to force bad possessions. Ernie and the coaching staff came up with a plan to exploit mismatches under the basket and Crittle and Dunigan took advantage, following the gameplan the entire game. Catron looked like Catron from last year, not the turnover-prone player he has become this year. Something clicked. The team seemed to come together for one game. The gameplan was good, Ernie and staff made the right moves during the game, we saw a glimpse of what this team could do in the years to come.
With Oregon State coming to town, I'm finding it really hard not to be excited about the game. We've had a horrible season record-wise but we've also seen a team grow up right before our very eyes. Sunday marks an important opportunity for Ernie and crew to help make a statement at the end of the year. To end the season with 2 wins at home may not seem like a big deal for those with high expectations but having been there every step of the way, I can't help but smile at the prospect. Not at the idea of hurting an Oregon State postseason chance (although the idea of Rose Bowl parallels are appealing), more so at the work and effort the players and coaches have put in to make something new. It took till the end of the season but we may be seeing the first signs of the Oregon Ducks men's basketball "team". For me, that cautious optimism that was there after the Kansas State game has returned after a long, dark sabatical.