SAN JOSE, Calif. — Recruiting rankings are a famously inexact science, but a glance back at the top players in the 2018 class shows how this NCAA Tournament could have been different.
According to Rivals.com, the No. 4 player in the class was Bol Bol. And No. 5? That was Duke freshman Zion Williamson, the biggest star in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Today, one of those players is the face of the best team in college basketball, a No. 1 seed favored to win the national championship by a whopping 38 percent of entrants in ESPN’s bracket challenge.
The other is sitting courtside in a walking boot, absently dribbling a basketball while his teammates prepare for an unexpected appearance as a No. 12 seed.
Basketball is a cruel game, and season-altering injuries come with the territory. It’s interesting to imagine how this season could have been different if Bol, perhaps the most intriguing talent in the game, hadn’t suffered a season-ending foot injury in December.
“I think we could make it all the way to the championship if I was playing,” Bol said Thursday, speaking to reporters for the first time since his injury.
We’ll never know what a healthy Bol could have meant for Oregon’s season. As Bol himself acknowledged, the team wasn’t setting the world on fire when he went down.
The Ducks lost to Iowa and Texas Southern with Bol in the lineup. They also dominated Syracuse with Bol scoring 26 points and going 10-for-15 from the field.
At most, we saw only a glimpse of what Bol and the Ducks could do together. What’s happened since the injury has been a cool story in its own right, even if it’s a different story than anyone imagined.
No one thought Oregon would be in the NCAA Tournament. No one thought Bol would be here, either.
When he got hurt, it was widely assumed Bol would pack his bags and skip town to prepare for the NBA draft. Isn’t that the rap on one-and-done players? They’re only in college because the NBA forces them to go. They don’t care about school, don’t value the college experience and don’t really belong in an amateur sport.
There are varying degrees of truth to that statement, but this much is obvious: If Bol hated college, he wouldn’t have been on the bench with his teammates all season, and he wouldn’t be here right now.
“They’re like my brothers,” Bol said. “They’re not the reason I got hurt, so why should I separate myself from them? I’m here to support them. I still wanted to come to the tournament.”
Bol said his foot injury developed over time and left him no choice but to undergo season-ending surgery. Rather than focusing exclusively on his professional future, Bol surprised even coach Dana Altman by electing to stay in school, travel with the team and do his rehab in Eugene.
The payoff was the chance to see his teammates pull together and carry the Ducks to the NCAA Tournament through an improbable three-week tear, culminating with four wins at the Pac-12 Tournament last week.
For that to happen, the Ducks had to regroup, reinvent, reconfigure — whatever term you pick, it was an intense process. They played poorly for long stretches of the season. That’s not unexpected when you’re relying on five freshmen and the most talented one gets hurt.
“It was a big change,” Altman said. “There were so many things we were trying to run through him because he’s such a unique player. Going back to the Syracuse game, everything we ran against their zone was through him at the high post. He’s just a different dude.
“It wasn’t totally reinventing because we have other good players, but he definitely was someone that we were going to try to run a lot of things through.”
The team Oregon became was far different than the one Oregon was becoming back in November. This team is less explosive and not nearly as talented, but the Ducks have compensated by playing stifling defense down the stretch.
Can they keep this going? That’s what everyone will be asking when Oregon tips off against Wisconsin at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
With Bol on the court, we might be talking about the Ducks as one of the teams capable of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. As it is, we’re wondering if they can make a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.
A big change? You bet. But not nearly as big as it could have been.
“Even without me,” Bol said, “I still have faith that we can still go really, really far.”
Wherever they go, he's going with them.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email email@example.com.