It all comes down to one thing…you stick to that and everything else don’t mean shieeet.
Oregon men’s basketball following its 1939 national championship spent decades mired in the bottom half of its conference. Once in awhile the Ducks pulled home upsets in the cozy and creaky confines of McArthur Court (next to the rapey campus graveyard where fans got stoned at halftime) against top-flight West Coast programs like UCLA and Arizona.
To Oregon alums of a certain age, March Madness on campus was more clearly defined as the mood that sets in when you realize you haven’t seen the sun in three months: girls’ hair never seemed to dry, falling asleep during comp lit breakout in Villard and the smell of spilled bong water and mildew socks upon entry into any off-campus dwelling. There was a unique anonymity in Eugene that only the reliable stretch and stench of the dead of winter could bring.
Much of the Ducks’ recent success has erased all that …except for the rapey campus graveyard, that still exists.
The Ducks now, as is the case with all Oregon athletic programs, deploy state-of-the-art facilities to lure top recruits from the West Coast away from the sunnier trappings of Westwood and Tucson. As with football, their uniform and shoe game couldn’t be more on point. Thursday night’s Big Bird-molting yellow Nikes were fly and fast enough for running an impromptu steeplechase through Hayward Field to ditch campus police after stealing a 40 from Alder Street Market.
And their coach, Dana Altman, a man who was grown in the corn fields of Crete, Nebraska and shucked specifically to coach college basketball, is a program-turnaround guy, a minter of All Americans, a bracket buster and a level 3.5e class Dungeon Master when it comes to fluid offensive and defensive schema.
But more on that in a second.
Altman, who arrived in Eugene from the Midwest wearing a gingham dress, pigtails and ruby slippers on April 24, 2010, has the confidence of Phil and Pat and all the gray-goateed high-earning Ducks boosters. He just signed an extension in the fall that will keep him in green sideline ties through 2023. As Altman Thursday became the first coach in school history to lead the program to Back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, that extension looks well-timed.
But then there’s Kansas, Oregon’s Elite Eight opponent Saturday night.
Bill Self has the best team, if not program, in the nation and even though the Jayhawks have been slow to start during their first three rounds of this tournament, they’ve ended each match thus far with white-out blizzards of defense, rebounding and scoring. In the round of 64, Kansas deadlocked with UC Davis for the first five minutes before going on to win by 38. Michigan State kept it close for 17-odd minutes of first half play before a 90-70 final crept up on the Spartans. During Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup, Purdue was up on Rock Chalk for almost the entirety of the first half before going on to lose by 32.
Oregon, on the other hand, has been playing from behind in the waning minutes and taking games down to their final possessions, relying on old-school man defense and a little bit of tournament stardust as the clock winds to the buzzer. The last two games they’ve won by a total of four points and nothing was assured until 0.0 showed above the backboard.
The Ducks’ Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks are the keys to the team’s offense. As a pair, they combined for 32 points on 12-of-28 shooting vs. Michigan Thursday. The clutch play of emerging sophomore Dorsey especially has been the story of March as he is the second-leading scorer in the tournament and the man with the ball in winning time.
Between Brooks, Dorsey, Dylan Ennis, Jordan Bell, Kavell Bigby-Williams and Roman Sorkin (the latter pair stepping up to replace one of the best fours in the country—the injured Chris Boucher) have been disproportionately effective underneath this tournament compared to the regular season. Thursday Oregon outscored Michigan 34-16 in the paint and outrebounded them 36-31. Not bad for a program that was missing its primary glass cleaner and didn’t rank in the top 25 in rebounding during the regular season.
On both ends of the court, Altman’s system is so good that even when poorly-executed (Oregon has yet to put a signature half together this March), the Ducks play better than their individual set pieces. They spread the floor, make good passes and cuts and are getting into formation right away setting screens, getting the ball down low and kicking out for open looks near the arc. Though they’ve yet to put together a complete game this tournament, in short and timely stretches—think their 13-point flurry in under 120 seconds to come back from 11 down late in the second half last weekend against Rhode Island—the Ducks have realized their potential of being the most prolific offense in college basketball. On defense, Altman’s variable press-to-zone-to-man rotations that morph depending on personnel have created mismatches and thrown their opponents off, see: forcing Rhode Island to force up unnecessary jumpers with a double-digit lead and Michigan abandoning their month of dominance in the paint for bad long-range looks on Thursday.
Brooks, Ennis, Dorsey and freshman Payton Pritchard (look for Pritchard to break out against Kansas) have all played multiple positions this tournament yet they will each need to grow a few inches in poise and stature between now and Saturday to guard the likes of Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham. The Jayhawks’ NBA-bound trio combined for 77 points on 22-of-39 shooting Thursday night. Jackson, who is winning the argument against UCLA’s Lonzo Ball for world’s best freshman/future lottery pick, also grabbed 12 rebounds and came away with four steals.
So that’s where the record needle scratches, right on Jackson. With him, Kansas is nearly unbeatable and would probably contend with most NBA D-league teams as well as the present-day Lakers. Without him, they’re good…pretty good. Well above average. But not showstoppers.
Oregon needn’t look back farther than Kansas’ last loss March 9 to TCU in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament. TCU had been struggling going into the tournament, losers of seven in a row. Kansas, on the other hand, was winners of 11 straight and looked to easily dismantle the Horned Frogs. TCU made 49 percent of their shots on the day including three clutch free throws from Desmond Bane who was fouled beyond the arc in the waning seconds by Svi Mykhailiuk—the Kansas forward forced to pop out and defend.
Jackson spend the game on the bench, injured.
See what happened there?
So, the men of Oregon have two choices Saturday when it comes to Jackson.
They can do this:
…He’ll quit the game.
Oregon on Saturday isn’t going to change the outcome much by keying in on Mason and Graham, but they can deploy some good, old-fashioned Hack-a-Jackson. Go at the freshman every play, make him guard and make him foul. Unlike LeBron, he won’t get every call (that privilege isn’t coming for a few years at the next level) and frustration can mount.
This philosophy also goes back to Oregon’s front line’s ability to switch positions and Altman’s ability to rotate offensive sets. Get a new guy on Jackson every few possessions and try, oh how they can try, to wear him down.
Self and his Jayhawks likely see this tactic coming and they’re ready for it. Surprisingly, Kansas looks more West Coast this year with their finesse and quicks than most West Coast teams. Self’s four-guard lineup also gives away nothing to physicality and with a shooter literally waiting everywhere, they can score (and perform circus dunks) at will. To wit, KU is the first team since the 1995 UConn Huskies to score at least 90 points in its first three tournament games. Oregon, to match that, will have to literally make 50%-plus from the floor, rebound …and stay out of foul trouble.
The Ducks, in other words, have to play a perfect game, plan on scoring 100 …and maybe have to call on the ghosts of the Tall Firs to send Kansas into the rapey graveyard. Because there is no Carl Spackler in college hoops taking out Jackson is going to take a minor mirac—so don’t count on it.
But don’t count them out either.