In October, Oregon projected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12, and a fringe candidate to make the NCAA tournament. The Ducks, who made a deep NIT run in 2012, returned the core of that squad, including senior EJ Singler, and added talented freshman guards in Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson to the mix. But the same questions that kept Oregon from reaching the next level in 2012 still remained, and the transfer status of Arsalan Kazemi was, at the time, still undecided. But Kazemi was cleared to play, and was as good as advertised, and thanks to an easy schedule and a well-timed hot streak, Dana Altman's Ducks found themselves ranked in the top 10 in the country. This team wasn't supposed to be that good.
And they aren't.
After a January 26th win over washington that ran Oregon's record to 18-2, the Ducks lost the next three straight, on their way to a 5-6 regular season finish. That slide culminated in last week's trip to the Rockies; needing to win only one of two to lock up the #1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, Oregon tossed up two straight clunkers, the most egregious of which came at the hands of the 13-17 Utah Utes. Those losses handed the regular season championship to UCLA, and left Oregon facing a potential semifinal date with the seemingly-omnipresent scourge that is the California Golden Bears, should they get by the winner of washington and Washington State.
Some things to consider: of Oregon's 23 wins, only four (UNLV, Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA) came against a current 20 win team, and the last of those wins was on January 19th. Since then? 0-4 against 20-winners Cal and Colorado. This is a team whose leading scorer averages less than 40% shooting from the field, who turns the ball over 16 times per game, and who is packed with players more than willing to disappear for a game or two at a time, contributing next to nothing while on the court. At its best, the Oregon of the last six weeks is able to make enough shots and grind out wins. At its worst, it's been Arsalan Kazemi and a bunch of confused people.
Many of you are undoubtedly frustrated. Six weeks ago, visions of Sweet Sixteen appearances and conference championships were dancing about your brain like flotsam after a storm. You were dreaming of banners, of EJ SIngler's ascent to cult hero, and of a day where Oregon is a threat to win in any sport in which it decides to participate. Instead, you've been left to stare at a flailing mess that can't be trusted to beat anybody. But that's okay.
Because now basketball can be fun again.
You know the feeling you get when you find cash in a jacket you haven't worn in a while? That was Oregon basketball for the first two and a half months of the season. Watching them play was like finding a fiver you didn't even know you had. And every time you put on that jacket, you'd never expect some more cash to be there. But there it was, beating UNLV and hanging tough with Cincinnati, or sweeping the Arizona schools and the LA schools in consecutive weeks. Over time, you began to expect to find that cash every time you put your jacket on. And when it wasn't there, you were disappointed. "What the fuck, magic jacket?" you'd say, "I wanted a pastrami sandwich! Where the hell is my lunch money?" Occasionally, a couple dollars would show up. The two-point win over WSU was thirty-nine cents, all in nickels and pennies. But now, you're convinced that the magic is gone. You don't search the pockets with exuberance. You just put the jacket on, and get to trudgin'.
In all honesty, I don't expect Oregon to win another game this season. They'll be facing either Washington State or washington for the third time this season; The Cougs enter the Pac-12 tourney riding a sweep of the LA schools, and the huskies would just love to kick the Ducks while they're reeling. And I just don't see a world where this current Oregon team - a team who can't score, can't finish, can't take care of the ball, and can't get stops when it counts - can win against any NCAA tournament-caliber team. And if that were to happen, Oregon would finish the season 23-10, with an NCAA tournament appearance. If you'd told me that outcome in November, I'd be thrilled with how the season turned out. The only reason that feels like a disappointment today is because we became accustomed to the overachieving Ducks of January. It's time to suspend that emotion, and get back to basics; this team has already exceeded our hopes for this season, and is essentially playing with house money. And what if Carlos Emory and crew found a bit of that magic? Oregon is 4-0 against the Washington schools this year, and lost two games to Cal by a combined six points. That'd get them a favorable first-round NCAA matchup, and a winnable game in Round 2. And wouldn't that be fun to watch?
Oregon has regressed to the mean in a particularly painful way this season, and the timing of that cold streak has taken much of the shine off of what has been a fairly remarkable year of basketball. And in the team's current state of unrest, Duck fans shouldn't expect to see much in the way of good basketball. But if our expectations for this team are at a season-low, then maybe, just maybe, Dana Altman's crew will find a way to surprise us for a couple more weeks.