EUGENE, Ore. — For the last seven years, as Dana Altman and his staff have crisscrossed the country in search of elite hoops talent, they’ve always come back to the same question when evaluating a prospect.
Is this guy good enough to help us beat Arizona?
The Wildcats have been the toast of the Pac-12 during Altman’s Oregon tenure, winning the regular season or conference tournament championship (or both) in three of those six seasons. They’ve been to three Elite Eights since 2011 and before the season began, they looked poised to challenge for another conference title and deep NCAA tournament run.
The team picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason poll though? That would be the Ducks. While Arizona has typically fared better in attracting bluechip recruits, Oregon prides itself as a developmental program. Altman’s teams, as his players will tell you, always get better as the season goes on. Still, Altman said that when the Ducks signed four-star guard Dillon Brooks out of Findlay Prep in 2014 and national NJCCA player of the year Chris Boucher in 2015, he and his staff felt like those players hadn’t been given the national attention they deserved. He sold them on coming to Eugene to prove themselves.
They did exactly that on Saturday, when the Ducks embarrassed Arizona at Matt Knight Arena, using tremendous accuracy from long range (16-for-25 from three, 64%) to jump out to a 36–11 lead before coasting to a 85–58 win. It was Arizona’s second-worst loss in Sean Miller’s eight years in Tucson.
Afterward Brooks, who finished with 18 points, three assists and three steals, said that in terms of tournament success, “We look up to Arizona and want to be just as good as them.”
But as the Ducks head to UCLA Thursday night a half-game behind Arizona in the Pac-12, they look to be on the brink of passing the Wildcats for the second season in a row.
While their offensive blitzkrieg drew attention, it was the Ducks’ defense that really stood out. Miller said afterward that the Wildcats’ perimeter defense wasn’t actually that bad, the Ducks were just in a groove. Brooks and fellow guard Tyler Dorsey (23 points on 6-for-6 from three) laughed gleefully after the game, saying they could not remember a time they had shot so well or had so much fun in their entire basketball careers.
The Ducks are not likely to shoot it that well again, especially outside of their home court. Altman joked afterward that maybe it was because the Ducks just talked through the gameplan instead of having a shootaround, and maybe no shootarounds going forward should be the gameplan. He told his guys before the season that typically a team shoots its best in 10 games, is average 10 games and is “not worth a darn” the 10 other games, and those are usually the ones that matter.
What may matter most for Oregon moving forward is the way the Ducks lock down on defense. On Saturday, they held the Wildcats to a miserable 25.9% from the field in the first half. Miller believes Oregon is in line for another deep NCAA tournament run, after its Elite Eight trip a season ago.
“They were a Final Four team last year, if you think about it: They were a one-seed, an incredible team from start to finish,” Miller said. “If you think about who they returned and who they’ve added, certainly they’re in the mix again.”
It’s who they brought back defensively that matters most. Oregon is second in the Pac-12—and 14th in the country—in efficiency. Guards who can slow dribblers and fly around are nice, but Oregon really separates itself in the paint, where Boucher and Jordan Bell await. If an opposing guard can get past the perimeter, the country’s leaders in blocked shots (Oregon averages 7.3 blocks per game) are there to protect the rim.
That defense will be tested against UCLA, the most efficient offensive team in the country. The Bruins lead the league in scoring (92.9 ppg), field goal percentage (53.5%) and three-point field goal percentage (42.4%). Everyone gets great shots (six players average at least 10 ppg) because they move the ball well, evidenced by their nation-leading 22.0 assists per game.
“We know what the problem is,” Brooks said of UCLA. “They can get it going anytime.”
Oregon escaped with an 89–87 win Dec. 28 in Eugene in both teams’ conference opener when Brooks hit a three with two seconds to go for the victory. UCLA shot 53.1% that night, but the Ducks were helped by 25 free throw attempts (UCLA shot just 12). Thursday, Oregon will need more of the defense it brought against Arizona to stay atop the Pac-12. After its Los Angeles trip—they play at USC on Saturday—the Ducks will host the Utah and Colorado then travel to the Bay Area before wrapping up the regular season with winless Oregon State. Arizona, by comparison, hosts the Cal Saturday, then travels to Washington before finishing with three consecutive home games.
“We’ve got a much tougher schedule left,” Altman said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, and they’re still the front runner.”