It’s been an interesting hoops season so far in Eugene. While Kelly Graves’ squad of young ladies continue to impress on the way potentially to their first conference crown since 2000, the men’s side is experiencing something it hasn’t for a few years: keeping themselves on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth come March.
Unlike the last couple of seasons, when the men of Oregon were the beautiful cheerleading squad captain who had the body of a 25-year-old in high school, this year they’re traversing more along the lines of the awkward, bespectacled girl with her hair up in pigtails who likes to play Magic the Gathering at lunch.
But don’t think that means they won’t still get invited to the big dance.
Ahead of what historically has been a very tough bay area trip for the UO hoopsters, Oregon is sitting at 4-4 in Pac-12 play, having looked like a young team experiencing tenacious growing pains at certain points, while looking like a potential bracket buster at others. Coach Dana Altman has been unhesitant in praising his young squad for their growth while simultaneously vehemently acknowledging the mistakes being made and what must be corrected for success.
There are some glaring similarities between this season and the one where Oregon eventually hit the stride that would carry them to back-to-back Pac-12 titles and deep NCAA Tournament runs, last year’s culminating in a Final Four appearance.
In the 2014-2015 season Oregon looked less than impressive at this same point. Then, they also stood at 4-4 in conference with some very shaky performances and hardly looking like a legitimate tournament threat. They had just been manhandled by Arizona and were facing another tough test playing always unpredictable Arizona State in Tempe. They fought, clawed, and ground out a one-point overtime win that gave them back a winning record in conference.
At the time it hardly seemed to indicate a corner being turned, but after that game, something clicked.
Joseph Young, the dynamic Oregon guard who had elected to return for his senior season instead of declaring for the NBA draft, proclaimed that Oregon would make the NCAA Tournament, just as they had the previous two seasons.
At midseason, it seemed a bold statement, but after the Arizona debacle, Oregon went on a tear, going 9-1 the rest of the regular season and storming to the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament. Oregon ended up finishing 2nd in the conference after being picked to finish 8th in the preseason polls. Along the way, Oregon upset top 10 Utah at home and swept the bay area trip for the first time in 39 years. That team had the explosive conference player of the year Young, but aside from that was a ragtag group made up of highly touted freshmen Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Casey Benson, transfer Dwayne Benjamin, and veteran Elgin Cook.
This year’s squad also faces the prospect of a bay area sweep, a potential looming upset at home when Arizona comes to town February 24th, and like the 2015 squad has a leader in Peyton Pritchard accompanied by highly touted freshmen Troy Brown, Kenny Wooten, and Victor Bailey, as well as veteran transfers Mikyle McIntosh and Elijah Brown. Back then Brooks was showing flashes of an all-conference talent while Bell was surprisingly leading the Pac 12 in blocks. This year Troy Brown is showing the same hints of caliber while Wooten is surprisingly leading the conference in blocks. And while Pritchard is not yet at the explosive, NBA-ready level Young was in 2015, it’s clear he’s becoming the Ducks’ floor general.
And behind all this, of course, is Altman, who’s shown an uncanny ability to develop talent as the season progresses and play their best basketball towards the season’s end. 2015 was not the only instance either. The year before Altman’s squad had reeled off 7 wins in a row to finish the regular season, culminating in an upset of #3 Arizona. And two years ago the Ducks went on an absolute rampage after an embarrassing bay trip that resulted in two losses, winning the last five of the regular season, three straight in the Pac-12 tournament, and another three straight in the big dance itself for a total of 11 in a row.
The bay area trip is always a challenge for Oregon. Last year, en route to another conference crown and Midwest Regional championship, it took a last second 3 by Brooks and a last-minute tip-in by Bell to escape Berkley and Palo Alto with wins. However, neither Cal nor Stanford look particularly impressive thus far this year, and if the talent on Oregon’s team can continue to grow and mesh as the season progresses Altman may again pull some late season magic out of the hat.
So if you’re Oregon, make sure that tailored dress is clean and ready, keep the curling iron plugged in, and don’t tell Henry the limo driver he can have the night off just yet.
Oregon may well still get that dance invite they’re looking for.