Eugene – well, here we go again. With February fading into March and the run to the NCAA Tournament nearing its final lap, Oregon men’s basketball is yet again finding their rhythm and identity at just the right time.
Yet even with a sweep of the Washington schools this weekend the Ducks would most likely need a strong surge to the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament (or obviously, winning it outright) to secure an unprecedented 6th consecutive appearance in the big dance.
The good news: that doesn’t seem like an entirely unrealistic goal at this point.
A calling-card of Altman-coached teams at Oregon is that it’s not how you start the season, but how you finish. This current squad, rich in talent but lacking the experience and cohesiveness that allowed the core of players the last couple years to make deep tournament runs, seems to have turned a metaphorical corner in recent weeks.
Earlier this season, the Ducks had the tendency to fold when things began to go downhill. When the dynamic Trae Young unleashed his offensive arsenal against Oregon in the PK80, they folded. When Oregon State began to surge fueled by their home crowd in the second half in Corvallis, they folded. And when Stanford jumped all over Oregon defensively early in the game to take the Ducks out of their rhythm from the start in Palo Alto, they folded.
But Saturday Oregon had multiple chances to fold and didn’t. When 14th ranked Arizona started hot and took a double digit first half lead, Oregon fought back. When they again took a double digit 2nd half lead, Oregon fought back. And when they rallied from a 5 point deficit in the final minute to force an unexpected overtime, Oregon fought back. And by continuing to fight back against Arizona and their most-likely #1 NBA draft pick DeAndre Ayton, the Ducks earned their signature win of the season before a raucous crowd at Mathew Knight Arena intent on reminding the Wildcat team and coaches of their current FBI investigation while also cheering their webfoots on to victory.
Make no mistake, the sweep in Los Angeles hurt. Had a few things gone differently and Oregon managed to escape LA 2-0 instead of 0-2, this win over Arizona might well have punched their ticket to the big dance. As it was, Oregon lost to USC and UCLA. But the difference is the Trojans and Bruins did not necessarily outplay Oregon, nor did Oregon fold like in previous losses. Both games were right there to be won, but an ill-advised shot here or a defensive miscue there were enough to keep that possibility from becoming reality.
Still, these were two of the top 3 teams in the conference and both games were at their respective houses. That coupled with the upset of Arizona leads to the notion that as of right now Oregon looks like it can hang with anyone in the conference, a very good sign heading into the conference tournament.
But even before the trip to Vegas unfolds there is work to be done. Washington State proved in Eugene that they could give Oregon trouble before the Ducks eventually pulled away. And Washington will surely have vengeance on its mind after a humiliating defeat to Oregon in Eugene in which the Huskies were held to their lowest point total since the 1940s. A top-four seed in the conference tournament would be a welcome luxury for Oregon as it would enable them to sit out the first day of competition with a bye and have an easier and better-rested path to the championship game.
For the first time since the 2015 season Oregon heads into the home stretch desperately needing every game and being more concerned with actually making the NCAA tournament rather than where they will be seeded in it.
But it’s looking like, once again, they will be tackling the final push playing their best basketball of the season, as mentioned, an Altman-coached trait.