There are a lot of questions thrown around when a team comes close to claiming the ultimate prize, but perhaps none are more prevalent than the infamous “what if?” For the Oregon Men’s basketball team, who fell a mere one point shy of the 2017 National Championship game, the biggest “what if” of them all sat on the bench at University of Phoenix Stadium with his game face on yet unable to put his freakish skills to use on College Basketball’s biggest stage.
Many Duck faithful wondered whether Oregon could even make it to the Final Four, a destination they seemed on the fast track to for majority of the season, after it was announced prior to the conference tournament final that the captivating Canadian was done for the season with a torn ACL. Those fears were only amplified as Oregon looked somewhat befuddled and out of rhythm for most of the game, which they eventually dropped to Arizona.
Obviously facing a Top 10 team in front of a partisan Arizona crowd with only mere hours to adjust to the absence of one of their most productive players was a daunting task for the Ducks. But once they procured the 3rd seed and their course for Phoenix was set before them, Oregon made it clear they had formulated an effective plan to compensate for Boucher’s absence.
Without Boucher’s defense-spreading presence, Oregon was forced to resort to a more traditional inside-out game, with Jordan Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams occupying the key while the guards patrolled the perimeter. Bell shouldered the load in the post, and his increased offensive productivity inside coupled with the lack of hesitancy by Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Dylan Ennis to drive to the basket opened up the 3-point line. Dorsey, who had already been on a tear heading into the tournament, benefited particularly from the increased availability of deep shots that might otherwise have been Boucher’s to hoist.
After surviving nail-biters against red-hot teams Rhode Island and Michigan, Oregon’s new Boucher-less attack plan came to fruition against 1 seed and perennial National Title contender Kansas in the Elite Eight. Oregon overwhelmed the more highly touted Jayhawks in a game essentially played in their back yard with an arena full of roughly 9o% blue and red. Bell was a man possessed, compensating for Boucher’s swatting ability with 8 blocked shots. In the second half, Bell’s mere presence in the lane was enough to make Kansas alter plays within his vicinity. And every time they made a run and the crowd began to rile, Dorsey was there to sink another dagger from deep and keep them all quiet. Oregon pretty much outplayed an absolutely loaded Kansas team in every facet. Only Frank Mason III was able to figure out Oregon offensively, tallying 21 points. Josh Jackson, an incredible athlete with size and skill similarities to Boucher, was only able to notch 10 points, majority of which were scored within the last 10 minutes of the game. He had been averaging nearly 19 in the tournament prior.
Then came North Carolina, a team on a mission after losing a heartbreaking championship game to Villanova at the buzzer the year before. Unlike the Kansas game, however, Oregon was not the aggressor, save for a small stretch in the first half in which they took the lead. In front of over 77,000 fans Oregon surrendered 19 second-chance points and 16 turnovers as the Tar Heels took control. Still, Oregon fought back valiantly to close within one in the final seconds. But the inability to secure a rebound off of four missed free throws led to their demise.
So again, the question must be raised: “what if?” Would Boucher’s presence have been enough to ensure Oregon lifting the trophy two days later? There are certainly many pros for that argument. For one, Boucher is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. At 6’10” his speed and agility levels are not often seen, particularly at the NCAA level. Although he often plays the 4 or 5, Boucher can play from 25 feet in. His condor-like wingspan essentially assures his outside shot cannot be blocked and lends itself to him being an easy target for alley-oops, whether it be on the run or from a half court set. Those long arms coupled with astute timing similar to Bell’s also made him one of the more prolific shot-blockers in the country, particularly coming off the backside of the opposing offensive player.
However, there were some detractors to his game as well. For as good an outside shooter as he was for his size Boucher had the unfortunate habit of falling in love with the 3-point shot, even on nights when it wasn’t falling. Between Dorsey, Brooks, Ennis, Casey Benson and Payton Pritchard, Oregon had more than enough firepower from deep. Boucher was probably most effective beating his larger, slower defenders off the dribble on drives to the basket, an ability he certainly displayed at times, but perhaps not nearly as often as one would have liked to see. The other issue, which had been noticeable since his arrival in Eugene, was his slight frame. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina’s bruising big man, had a field day inside, scoring 25 points and seizing 14 rebounds. This came against the stronger, sturdier Bell and although Boucher’s presence would have served as another tower to account for, the 260 pound Meeks most likely would have bowled right through Boucher’s slender build. It wouldn’t have gotten any easier in the championship game either, as Gonzaga’s man in the middle Przemek Karnowski is a staggering 7’1” and over 300 pounds.
In the end, it’s a toss-up. Oregon’s season was memorable, historic, and fun. It will always be able to be looked back on fondly and celebrated. But perhaps the most important aspect if Oregon intends to hang that second national championship banner at Mathew Knight Arena is how the Ducks move forward with their future teams. Injuries happen, minor & major, and always inconvenient. Boucher’s may have topped the list in that aspect. But if future Oregon teams continue to mesh the talent & chemistry the way the 2016-17 squad did, they’ll get more opportunities in the Final Four.
And maybe, leave no “what ifs” to be asked.