Oregon has a familiar path to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
Then the Ducks will need to alter their route to pick up an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
For the second year in a row, Oregon (19-12, 10-8) earned the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament and will face No. 11 Washington State (11-20, 4-14) in the first round at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Last season, the Ducks opened with a 64-62 win over WSU before defeating Utah 68-66 in the second round. Once again, Utah is the No. 3 seed awaiting the winner between the Ducks and Cougars.
Oregon’s tournament run ended last year with a 74-54 loss to USC in the semifinals, but the Trojans are on the other side of the bracket this season. If seeds hold, Arizona State would await Oregon in the semifinals and Washington in the title game and the Ducks have beaten both of those teams in the last two weeks.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re ready,” UO junior guard Payton Pritchard said after Oregon closed the regular season with a 55-47 win at conference champion Washington on Saturday.
The Ducks take a four-game winning streak into the Pac-12 Tournament, but will need to win four more to claim the title.
“It is a whole new week,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get ready to play. We feel a lot better about ourselves now than we did three weeks ago and hopefully we can carry that into next week. There are no guarantees, some teams come in playing poorly and catch fire and teams that are playing great can’t hit a shot. We need to get ready to go play and do our best.”
Oregon dropped into ninth place in the conference on Feb. 23 when it blew a 19-point lead in a 90-83 loss at UCLA. The Ducks followed up with four wins by an average of 18.3 points.
“We’ve had momentum and it just keeps increasing,” Pritchard said. “We made changes and the last five games we had just one bad half and that was the second half at UCLA. After that, we have been stellar.”
One change made for the UCLA game was the addition of 6-foot-9 freshman Francis Okoro to the starting lineup with Pritchard, Paul White, Louis King and Kenny Wooten.
“We have been playing Kenny and Francis together down low, starting bigger and rebounding-wise that changed,” Pritchard said. “We are dominating the boards more and taking better shots. It took a while but we have a lot of good guys and we are starting to jell now and people can see it.”
The Ducks allowed 51.5 points during their four-game winning streak to finish the regular season leading the conference by giving up 63.7 points per game. Oregon held three of its past four opponents to a season low in points.
“We put two games together at home against Arizona State and Arizona and then we were able to carry it over,” Altman said. “I wish we had done it a little earlier, but guys are really connected defensively and talking. They are flying around and there are not nearly as many occasions when two guys are going to one guy. Guys are talking and reading stuff so our defense has been much better.”
Oregon beat Washington State 78-58 at home on Jan. 27 before defeating the Cougars 72-61 last week.
“It is energy,” Okoro said. “We are coming together as a team and everyone is lifting each other up. We are listening to coach and everything he tells us is working so we stay together to do what he asks us to do.”