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MBB: Ducks have got to sharpen their mental focus

An uninspired performance fortunately isn’t enough to lead to a loss, but it never should have been a nail-biter.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

What happened on Thursday was a delight for any Duck fan to see. After years and years of inability to overcome the psychological hurdle that was playing in Boulder, Oregon finally dropped the Colorado Buffaloes on their home court, something even Dana Altman had never done before.

It was a resounding statement against a team the Ducks were jockeying for position with in the Pac-12, it erased a “curse” that the team inexplicably seemed unable to overcome, and it solidified Oregon as an NCAA Tournament threat.

Then, 48 hours later, Oregon showed up in Salt Lake City and suddenly appeared almost incapable of putting away a team that has been atrocious in conference play and talent-wise should not have been able to hang anywhere near the Ducks.

After a sloppy first half in which Utah actually jumped out to an early lead, Oregon asserted itself with a 13-2 run and held a 43-31 halftime lead.

Utah continued to stick around until another push by the Ducks stretched their lead to 14 with under 10 minutes to play. The Utes refused to go away, however, and Oregon seemed in no hurry to put them away.

Utah pulled to within one after a silly inbounds turnover by Oregon with 20 seconds to play. On the ensuing inbound, a risky cross-court pass found its mark and Jacob Young converted a layup to secure a three point lead. Utah’s final attempt to tie from deep crashed helplessly off the backboard and, thankfully, the Ducks had survived.

This is concerning because as much as Oregon has turned things around since January, there are still lapses in focus and the habit the football team often displayed of playing down to the level of competition.

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

After beating UCLA and USC on the road and obliterating Washington by a record margin, the Ducks faceplanted against Colorado at home and I vehemently stated that something like that could not happen again, that if Oregon lost to another opponent that wasn’t ranked, and wasn’t favored, their hopes for a ticket to the big dance could easily be caput.

It came far too close to happening against the Utes, and the Ducks cannot allow themselves to believe they can always escape those types of situations based on their level of talent.

Let’s be frank; on paper Oregon is as talented and deep as anyone in the conference. For the first six weeks of the season that was not translating to wins on the court, but now it is.

The final piece Oregon must develop if they are to secure a spot in the tournament and make a nice run, is their killer instinct. Once they have a team like Utah down, they have to step on the throat. Because the higher they climb in the standings, the more teams will be gunning for them.

Oregon showed some resiliency in escaping with the win, but it never should have come down to an escape. The Ducks should have strolled happily away with the victory already tucked safely away in their bag.

The Ducks now return home to face two very subpar Bay-Area teams. They will be highly favored in both and their level of comfort may be at a premium. I said Saturday’s game should be a no-brainer. Turns out it was very much a “brainer”.

Let’s hope the next two are as easy to watch as they are to predict.

Time for some ruthlessness Ducks.