Dana Altman was counting on the Phil Knight Invitational to boost Oregon’s strength of schedule last season.
Then the Ducks opened the tournament labeled by some as “the greatest regular-season event in the history of college basketball” by losing 71-63 against Connecticut, which went on to finish the year 14-18.
That sent Oregon into the consolation bracket where its lone win was 89-79 in overtime against DePaul, which went 11-20 on the season. The Ducks’ only shot at a quality win during the week in Portland ended with a 90-80 loss to Oklahoma.
With none of Oregon’s other 10 nonconference games coming against teams from power conferences, and Fresno State serving as the only true road game during that stretch, the Ducks entered Pac-12 play with an RPI hovering above 100. Oregon spent much of conference play with its RPI in the 70s and 80s and reached No. 62 before a loss to USC in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament sent the Ducks into the National Invitation Tournament.
“The thing that really hurt us was losing to Connecticut and not being able to play Michigan State and Arkansas (at PK80), which would have changed our schedule a bit,” Altman recalled last week. “RPI-wise, that was important.”
Oregon suffered a similar fate two years ago when it was one of three ranked teams in the Maui Invitational, but was upset by Georgetown in the first round and never faced a ranked opponent during the tournament.
The Ducks are slated to play in the 2K Classic next season Nov. 14-15 at Madison Square Garden, but that may not provide a major boost to their RPI with Syracuse, Iowa and UConn also in the field. The Huskies fired coach Kevin Ollie after finishing below .500 for the second year in a row while the Hawkeyes went 14-19, including a 4-14 mark in the Big Ten.
That leaves Syracuse — a possible preseason Top-25 team — as the only team that likely could give Oregon’s résumé a big boost, but with the bracket yet to be released, it is possible the Ducks won’t run into the Orange. If the two teams meet, it would go down as a neutral-site game for the Ducks even though it would feel like a road contest.
With Oregon expected to be in most preseason polls based largely on the top recruiting class in school history, Altman intends to load up the schedule with a few more recognizable opponents next season. The Ducks are in negotiations to play one or two neutral-site games with opponents likely to return for a game in Portland or Eugene the following season.
“Because of our incoming freshmen, there is a lot more interest from the TV people and neutral-site games,” Altman said. “We’re trying to sift through it all and see what works. We have some things, but all the contracts are not signed, so I’m not going to talk about them until then. We will wait and see what comes back. I think we will have a little bit more of a national schedule because we do have a few guys back and, just as important, people want to see our freshmen.”
Oregon’s freshman class could grow if Altman adds another player or two during the spring signing period that begins Wednesday.
The Ducks have been getting plenty of publicity in recruiting — with Bol Bol and Louis King each selected to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic — before arriving in Portland this week for the Nike Hoop Summit on Friday. Will Richardson gave the Ducks three recruits in the Jordan game on Sunday.
“We’re talking to juniors now and younger players and they watch those games and see a couple of guys going to Oregon, that definitely gets their attention,” Altman said.
Oregon also has its largest contingent of players ever in the NBA with six ex-Ducks who have appeared on an active roster this year, including Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher off last year’s Final Four team. Troy Brown is likely to join that group next year after declaring for the draft following his freshman season.
“Most of the guys we recruit, that’s where they want to be, so it doesn’t hurt us to have Dillon among the top five or 10 rookies this year and Tyler is coming on strong and Jordan had a good year,” Altman said. “That stuff helps us, and we hope to continue that. We want guys to reach their goals. When they come here, playing in a Final Four is a goal, but we know going to the NBA is also a goal.”