Johnny Jones, the guy who coached No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons at LSU, was standing in a hallway of Matthew Knight Arena and trying to explain why Oregon really, truly is a good team.
The problem was, Jones’ current team had just taken that notion and whacked it to smithereens. Jones is in his first year at Texas Southern, and his Tigers had come to Matthew Knight Arena a 24-point underdog. They left 89-84 victors, handing Oregon its worst loss in the Dana Altman era.
“They’re a really good team now,” Jones said, “and they’re going to be special down the stretch. They’ll be different.”
If he’s wrong about the first part, Oregon fans can hope he’s right about the latter. The Ducks will have to be different, because the team that took the floor Monday night isn’t going to sniff the NCAA Tournament, much less a Pac-12 championship.
“Either we turn around and get better from this,” Payton Pritchard said, “or we don’t.”
It’s not unusual for Oregon to have a close call or two during the post-Thanksgiving doldrums. Last year’s team played Texas Southern and won 74-68. Boise State and Fresno State have played the Ducks tough at home in recent years. Back in 2015, Oregon went to overtime against both UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.
Never in Altman’s nine years, however, have the Ducks lost to a team like Texas Southern. The Tigers are No. 230 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and prior to Monday, Altman’s Ducks had never lost to a team outside the top 200. To find a comparable home loss, you’d have to go back to 2011 and the final days of McArthur Court, when the Ducks lost to San Jose State and Idaho in Altman’s first season.
Altman’s first team wasn’t supposed to be any good. This one was picked to win the Pac-12. Even Altman will admit this is more than the usual November growing pains.
“This is different,” Altman said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, and I’m not sure they want to adjust to the physicality and the toughness that they’ve got to have.”
Collectively, those new guys comprise the highest-rated recruiting class in Oregon history. Bol Bol, who dropped 32 points on Texas Southern, is a five-star prospect and surefire one-and-done. Somehow, the Ducks seem to be getting more talented but losing the edge that helped them win 11 NCAA Tournament games in five seasons.
Texas Southern is the same team that won at Baylor to start the season, and the same program that won at Michigan State a few years ago. The Tigers had a bunch of Division I transfers and played like a team that knows how to compete at a high level.
At times Monday night the Ducks looked like an AAU team playing the early game in the auxiliary gym. That’s not something you’d expect to say about an Altman team, and it’s enough to make you wonder whether Oregon needs to readjust its aim in recruiting.
Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey were top-50 recruits — talented players, for sure, but not one-and-dones. What separated Oregon’s Final Four team was its competitive fire. The Ducks haven’t come close to competing at the same level since those players moved on.
“Some plays we bring it, some plays we don’t,” said Pritchard, the only current Duck who played in the Final Four. “That’s not the way the Final Four team did it. Last year’s team, we didn’t have intensity. This year’s team, it needs to change.”
Altman has a reputation for successfully identifying grad transfers to fill holes on his roster. Now that everyone is doing it, the Ducks don’t seem to be getting the same returns.
Elijah Brown never became the player the Ducks thought they were getting when he transferred from New Mexico last season. This year’s addition from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Ehab Amin, looks like a role player who’s been thrust into major minutes because the Ducks are thin on the perimeter.
Amin originally committed to Nevada before leaving in a numbers crunch and signing with the Ducks. The coach who recruited him? Johnny Jones, who spent two seasons as an assistant at Nevada between getting fired at LSU and taking the job at Texas Southern.
“Ehab’s a good player,” Jones said. “He’s solid. I had a chance to watch him a little bit on tape, and I thought he was giving them some positive minutes. He’s a very tough player, gutty, really good defender.”
Louis King, the co-headliner of Oregon’s recruiting class along with Bol, has yet to take the court because of a knee injury. It’s possible his addition will address some of Oregon’s deficiencies, but it’s also unclear when the Ducks can expect him to contribute.
Oregon initially targeted a December return, but Altman has given no indication King is close to being cleared. For now, the Ducks will need to figure things out with the team they have.
“They’ve got some special guys on this team,” Jones said. “I think they’re still trying to find their way and still jelling. They’re going to be really good before the year is over.”
You’d think a team with this much talent should come around eventually, but Monday was a reminder that it doesn’t always happen that way. Remember when Johnny Jones was the coach at LSU and had the No. 1 overall pick playing point guard?
That team finished 19-14 and missed the NCAA Tournament. If the Ducks aren’t careful, Bol’s college career will end the same way.