Let this serve as a warning to whichever team ends up across from Oregon when the NCAA Tournament bracket comes out Sunday afternoon.
Beware of the Ducks. They’re charmed and dangerous.
Oregon completed a darkhorse run through the Pac-12 Tournament by knocking off top-seeded Washington 68-48 Saturday night. Left for dead a few weeks ago, the Ducks have resurrected their season and played their way into the NCAA Tournament through sheer guts, grit and determination.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see this coming. Want to know how wrong I was? I watched the Pac-12 championship game from an airport bar in San Francisco while waiting for my connecting flight back to Eugene.
When I booked a trip to the Pac-12 Tournament several weeks ago, I didn’t see much chance the Ducks would be playing on the final day. They were buried in the standings and seemed permanently stuck in neutral. Four games in four days sounded like way too much to ask.
I should have known better. Dana Altman has won more games than any other coach in the history of the Pac-12 Tournament, and his teams always seem to peak at this time of year. I’m not sure why this team seemed different, but somehow, it did.
Maybe it was the soul-crushing collapses at home to UCLA and Washington. Maybe it was miserable road losses at Colorado and Oregon State. Maybe it was the 62 points the Ducks allowed at Pauley Pavilion in the second half.
It was all of that, plus the season-ending injury to star freshman Bol Bol, that made this season look like a lost cause. I figured the Ducks were beyond hope, and I'm guessing I wasn't the only one.
If you had Oregon as an NCAA Tournament team in January, please step forward and collect your prize. For the rest of us, this run has been as surprising as it’s been exhilarating.
What changed? In a word, everything.
Let’s start with Payton Pritchard, who is playing the best basketball of his career and looking like an all-league point guard.
Pritchard took his share of blame for Oregon’s midseason struggles, especially after a couple late-game gaffes in a home loss to the Huskies. So let’s give credit where it’s due: Over the past three weeks, Pritchard has been phenomenal.
During the Ducks’ eight-game winning streak, Pritchard is averaging 15.7 points, 4.9 assists and 2.7 steals while shooting 51 percent from the floor and playing more than 35 minutes per game. He scored 20 points Saturday night, going 7-for-9 from the floor, dishing seven assists and grabbing six rebounds.
It’s not just Pritchard, either. Kenny Wooten is rejecting shots, throwing down dunks and causing nightmares at both ends of the floor.
Freshmen Louis King, Francis Okoro and Will Richardson have matured into reliable options. Seniors Ehab Amin and Paul White have elevated their games to reflect the urgency of March. Across the board, the Ducks are a different team than they were a few weeks ago.
No doubt, the soft Pac-12 had something to do with it. Washington won the league at 15-3, but the Huskies weren’t on the same level with previous regular-season champions. There was no meat-grinder waiting for the Ducks at the end of their tournament road.
That shouldn’t detract from anything Oregon has accomplished. With zero margin for error, the Ducks have reeled off eight straight wins, each one more impressive than the last.
And you know what? They’re not done yet.
I wouldn’t want to be the No. 5 or No. 6 seed that draws Oregon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. We’re talking about teams like Maryland, Mississippi State, Auburn or Buffalo — not exactly an insurmountable challenge after what the Ducks have accomplished already.
This is feeling a bit like 2013, when the Ducks won the Pac-12 Tournament, got a No. 12 seed and knocked off Oklahoma State and St. Louis to reach the Sweet 16. If they can carry this momentum into next week, it’s not a stretch to imagine the Ducks wrecking some brackets with an upset or two.
From where they were a few weeks ago, that’s a remarkable thing to say. I never imagined they’d be in this position, which is why I’m writing this column from the airport in San Francisco instead of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
So to Oregon’s NCAA Tournament opponent, here’s my advice: Underestimate the Ducks at your own risk. If you look at their record and assume they’re an easy draw, I can tell you exactly what’s going to happen.
You’ll be going home early, just like I did.