KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No. 3 Oregon (32-5) will play No. 1 Kansas (31-4) in the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament on Saturday night from the Sprint Center. The winner of the Midwest Regional Final will advance to the Final Four in Arizona.
The Ducks are making their fifth Elite Eight appearance in program history. For the Jayhawks, it will be their 22nd appearance in the Elite Eight.
Kansas has made quite the impression in this tournament. The Jayhawks are the first team since the 1995 UConn squad to score 90 points or more in their first three NCAA Tournament games. KU’s average margin of victory vs their opponents is 30 points per game thus far. They are shooting 41 percent from deep in 2016-17.
“We look forward to the challenge. It's an opportunity to play,” said Dana Altman.
KU hammered No. 4 Purdue, 98-66, by 32 points from the Sprint Center. The arena is just 40 miles from Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Their home court advantage will be more apparent on Saturday night.
Altman’s midwest roots don’t seem to mind about the 18,000-plus fans behind them.
"Kansas is Kansas,” Altman stated. “Obviously look out there. There is a little green section and a dark blue section. Royal blue filled everything else. It will be a tough ballgame because it's a road game."
Oregon enters the fold with a vastly different mindset. After the drastic season-ending injury to Chris Boucher, Altman was forced to make adjustments. Many outside of Oregon circles doubted their ability to fight adversity and prevail with the current roster. The Ducks had a different agenda.
UO blew past No. 14 Iona, 93-77, in the first round of March Madness. Then, the Ducks battled an 11-point second half deficit to defeat No. 11 Rhode Island, 75-72.
Thursday, Oregon eliminated No. 7 Michigan, 69-68, on the back of Jordan Bell to set the stage for a battle of juggernauts.
If you missed it, I compared this Oregon team to the 2016 Villanova squad. The same team that won the 2016 NCAA Championship. Last season, the No. 2 seed Villanova eliminated No. 1 Kansas from the tournament, 64-59. Could history repeat itself for Kansas? There are some factors working in Oregon’s favor.
2017 No. 1 seed Kansas is the overwhelming favorite by “public” opinion. A great deal of people are saying they hope the No. 3 Ducks just keep it close. I disagree.
I believe this is a great match-up for Oregon, better with Boucher but I digress. UO would rather play their style of uptempo basketball instead of another Michigan/Rhode Island team. Kansas, like the Ducks, is a 4-guard operation that feasts on transition buckets. The scoring won’t stop in this clash.
PLAYING WITH PURPOSE
The Jayhawks are averaging 96 points per game during their 3-game tournament run. Over the course of the season, they amassed 83.9 PPG. They are nearly impossible to beat when they score in the 90’s, simply because most teams can’t keep up. Their defense is solid, allowing 71.8 points per game to opponents.
Dana Altman’s bunch is averaging their season average of 79 points per game over the first three games of the tournament. The Ducks allowed 65.6 PPG to opponents in 2016-17, but are yielding 72 points per game in March Madness. With the devastating loss of Boucher felt more on the defensive side, Oregon is playing for their senior big man.
“He's been a great teammate. I know it’s hurting him,” said Tyler Dorsey in reference to his fallen teammate. “He wants to be out there with us, but we’re definitely going to do this for him.”
Both teams had identical 16-2 records in their respective conference. Now, it’s time to break down the individual match-ups for Saturday’s Elite Eight:
DANA ALTMAN vs BILL SELF
Overall, the Oregon lead man is 596-312 in 908 career games (.656). With the Ducks, Altman is an impressive 186-69 in 255 games (.741). He has 13 career appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, his career skyrocketed at Oregon after leading UO to the greatest run in program history.
Only Villanova (67) and Kansas (64) have more wins than the Ducks over the past two years. In fact, UO is one of three teams in Division 1 to reach the 30-win plateau the last two seasons. Altman also led Oregon to their first back-to-back regular season crowns in school history. He has attained three Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors in the last five years.
"The hardest game of the tournament because there's so much emphasis on the road to the Final Four," said Self in reference to the Elite Eight.
Self has a career record of 623-192 in 815 games coached (.764). When he took over at Kansas, the team exploded to the tune of 416-87 in 503 games (.827). He won the National Championship against Derrick Rose and Memphis in 2008.
After his first season in Lawrence, Self led KU to an unprecedented 13 straight regular season titles, tying John Wooden and the great UCLA teams. He is currently on an incredible individual streak of leading his team to the NCAA Tournament for 19 consecutive years.
TYLER DORSEY vs DEVONTE’ GRAHAM
This should be a great showcase of talent between these two similar guards. Dorsey is two inches taller and a year younger, but that may be the only difference. Nothing matters as much as Dorsey’s current form.
The LA kid has scored 20 points or more in six straight games. He is the first Oregon player in history to tally 20 points or more in their first three NCAA Tournament games in a single season.
“Playing here in K.C. is great,” said Graham. “The crowd behind us. They give us so much momentum and energy throughout the game. It's just great to be here.”
Graham is on a run of his own, averaging 20 points per game in the tournament. He tied Frank Mason III with a game-high 26 points in their destruction of Purdue on Thursday.
For the season, Graham is used more as KU’s third or fourth scorer, sometimes fifth. Yet, this postseason he is taking hold of the No. 3 spot. He plays with a lot of energy, but so does Dorsey. This battle could determine the outcome.
PAYTON PRITCHARD vs FRANK MASON III
The 6-foot-2 true freshman may not match-up with Mason at all times, but he will draw the 2017 Player of the Year candidate with regularity. Pritchard was solid against Michigan, registering six boards, five points, three dimes and a steal.
West Linn’s finest has elevated his defensive presence, amassing two steals per game in the tournament. In high school, Kansas offered a scholarship to the No. 1 guard from the state of Oregon.
"Ton of respect," stated Self in reference to Oregon. "Unbelievably athletic. They're like us, they're going to play small a lot of the time.”
What is there to say about the 5-foot-11 Mason that hasn't already been said this year? He is on the cusp of being named the National Player of the Year for his 20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.2 RPG and 1.3 SPG this campaign.
He is the ONLY Kansas player to ever record 20 PPG and 5 APG in a single season. He has been lights out all year, shooting 49 percent from the field and an insane 48 percent from downtown. He will cause havoc for UO’s defense. Don’t forget though, Mason missed every 3-point attempt in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. He is human, at times.
DYLAN ENNIS vs SVIATOSLAV MYKHAILIUK
You might call these guys the “x-factor” for their respective team entering Saturday’s tilt. Ennis is a sixth-year senior that has provided stability and leadership. He may have missed two crucial free throws on Thursday vs Michigan, but his impact was instrumental nevertheless.
The Canadian produced 10 points, five rebounds and three assists in Oregon’s win over the Wolverines. For the season, Ennis averaged 10.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.1 APG and 1.1 SPG. Yet, his biggest task this tournament may be containing the 6-foot-8 “guard” at Kansas.
“It's just an unbelievable feeling,” said Altman. “I owe these guys so much for putting us in this position.”
The Ukrainian is a nightmare to defend for a guard with his length. He doesn’t penetrate much, mainly residing behind the arc. Mykhailiuk is averaging 11.7 points per game during KU’s 3-game postseason run. He is averaging 9.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.3 APG and 0.8 SPG in 2016-17. He shot 40 percent from behind the arc this campaign.
DILLON BROOKS vs JOSH JACKSON
This showdown is worth the price of admission. Brooks is coming off a historic season with the Ducks. He was awarded the Pac-12 Player of the Year, alongside being named a 1st Team All-Pac-12 and 2nd Team NABC All-American. He has led Oregon to a historic 32-5 record, alongside their second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.
The Canadian’s most important assignment may be trying to “contain” the Kansas freshman. Offensively, DB is averaging his season average (16 PPG) over Oregon’s 3-game tournament run.
However, it has been his defense that has elevated. The the 6-foot-7 hybrid forward helped stifle Mo Wagner and DJ Wilson to 7-for-20 shooting for Michigan on Thursday. All season, Altman has placed Brooks on the oppositions best player. Saturday will be no different. Dillon is up for the task.
“They will play Dillon at the 4 like we play Josh,” said Self. “Then play the best defender in the Pac-12, Defensive Player of the Year around the middle, kind of like we do Landen (Lucas). So I think it will be two teams that at least match-up with each other pretty well."
The best freshman outside of Lonzo Ball hails from Prolific Prep. Jackson was the much-heralded No. 1 high school prospect entering college last season. He lived up to the hype and then some. During his first year of college, he is averaging 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.7 SPG and 1.1 BPG in 30.8 minutes per game. Not a bad start.
His numbers are rising in the NCAA Tournament, as the freshman is averaging 18.3 points per game. The 6-foot-8 guard is an explosive athlete that can get to the rim in a few steps. He is Andrew Wiggins with passion and a purpose. Once he is close to the rim, watch out for the leaper.
If the lane isn’t open, he will simply let it fly from the floor. Jackson shot 52 percent from the field this season and 39 percent from 3-point territory. His lone weakness is free throw shooting (56 percent). It will be a fistfight between these two competitors.
JORDAN BELL vs LANDEN LUCAS
The battle of the bigs will provide pure entertainment for fans nationwide. The Portland native is smooth and patient in the post. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year is explosive and energetic. As the lone big men amid their 4-guard starting line-ups, these two want the spotlight on them. It won’t get much brighter than Saturday.
Bell led the way in the win over Michigan with 16 points, 13 boards, one dime, one stolen pass and one blocked shot. The Pac-12 All-Defensive Team member grabbed two gigantic offensive rebounds on Thursday, guiding Oregon’s late 4-0 run to cap the 1-point victory in the regional semifinal.
For the season, the 6-foot-9 Duck was a beast with 10.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG and 2.1 BPG in 37 games played. Bell shot an incredible 62 percent from the floor this year. If he can slow Lucas, Kansas will be forced to fire from the outside.
“As a coach, you always dream of playing in the Final Four and winning a national title,” Altman said. “I feel really fortunate to have really good players who have put us in that position.”
Lucas is an undeniable talent down low. Once he has an opportunity to dominate the ball in a professional setting, his game will evolve into something special. He registered a double-double in KU’s first two tournament games. Lucas amassed 13 points and 11 rebounds against UC Davis in the first round and followed that up with a 10-point, 11-board performance against MSU. The 6-foot-9 forward enters the game averaging 7.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.1 APG and 1.0 BPG in 25.4 minutes per game.
This season, Lucas shot a ridiculous 64 percent from the field. Yet, he recorded a similar 63 percent from the charity stripe. At times, his offensive game reminds me of DeMarcus Cousins. Yet, he doesn’t dominate the offensive workload enough to drop Boogie stats on a regular basis. Limiting him will be vital. If Lucas finds his rhythm early, Kansas guards will assume more freedom on the offensive end.
Casey Benson stepped up for 24 hard-earned minutes on Thursday vs Michigan. The junior guard out of Arizona will need to play another pivotal role off the bench in this contest. He is averaging 5.0 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, while shooting 40 percent from deep in 20.9 minutes per game this season. Benson will defend Mason when Pritchard heads to the sideline.
6-foot-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams will continue to find minutes when Bell needs rest. KBW has been solid thus far.
Keith Smth has also carved out some time on the floor with the absence of Boucher.
Lagerald Vick is a big piece of the Kansas puzzle. The Raleigh native is amassing 7.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 APG on 45 percent shooting from the field and 82 percent from the line in 2016-17. He provides instant athleticism off the bench and his outrageous dunks only energize his teammates.
6-foot-10 Carlton Bragg Jr. would be starting for most teams in the nation, just not his own. For Kansas, he is averaging 5.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG and 50 percent from the floor in just 13.8 minutes per game.
Ready or not, here we go. The stage is set for the No. 3 Oregon Ducks (32-5) vs the No. 1 seed of the Midwest region in the form of the Kansas Jayhawks (31-4). The winner of the regional semifinal will advance to the 2017 Final Four in Phoenix.
The Elite Eight showdown will tip at 5:49 p.m. PT on Saturday from the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The “KU home game” will be televised on TBS.