CORVALLIS - Oregon had about nine hours to imagine itself as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then the Ducks lost 63-53 to Oregon State Saturday night at Gill Coliseum and the concern went beyond how far they will fall in the eyes of the selection committee. The biggest question facing Oregon now is whether or not it can develop a post presence during the final month of the regular season.
As usual, Oregon got most of its offense from its guards with Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis and Will Richardson combining for 38 points against the Beavers.
Freshman forward Chandler Lawson had seven points and five rebounds before a knee injury sent him to the bench for most of the second half as Oregon State rallied from a 10-point deficit to stretch its Civil War winning streak to three straight games. Forwards Shakur Juiston and C.J. Walker combined for two points in the paint in 49 minutes on the floor.
“We have to get better at finishing inside for the guards and bigs,” said Pritchard, who scored 16 points on 7-for-21 shooting. “We’ve got to be more dominant in there and then I think our shooting will come. We have to get in the paint more, passing and driving it.”
With Francis Okoro in Nigeria for his father’s funeral and N’Faly Dante sitting out a fifth straight game with a knee injury, OSU had a 34-28 edge on points in the paint. Senior center Kylor Kelley, who previously played at Northwest Christian and Lane Community College, led the way with 14 points, his second-highest total in a Pac-12 game this season, on 7-for-9 shooting.
Last week, Stanford’s Oscar da Silva had 27 points to help the Cardinal outscore UO 36-26 in the paint during a 70-60 win over the Ducks.
“I’m more concerned on the defensive end than the offensive end,” UO coach Dana Altman said. “I think we can get some post presence offensively, but defensively we’ve really got to get better. Guys are having careers against us inside and we have to do a better job.”
Okoro is Oregon’s most physical defender and is expected to return in time to face Colorado Thursday night at Matthew Knight Arena. Dante would likely be the Ducks’ best rim protector, but his status moving forward is unclear and his minutes have been limited in the nine games he played while he worked on conditioning and often battled foul trouble.
“Hopefully we get Francis back from Nigeria and get Dante healthy one of these days and start executing some stuff and get some post presence,” Altman said. “That one stretch they got seven inside buckets right at the rim in a row and our defense as real bad at that time.”
Oregon’s inability to get much offense at the rim is making it harder for the Ducks to get good looks on the perimeter.
The Ducks shot 40% from the field in the loss to OSU after shooting 32.8% against the Cardinal. Oregon is 14-of-47 on 3-pointers in those games.
Oregon led by at least nine points in the second half of both those games, but was outscored by a combined total of 77-45 in the second half while shooting 15-of-59 from the field during that span.
“We’re not getting any flow in that second half,” Altman said. “We took a 10-point lead and scored 13 points the rest of the way. We are not getting very good shots. … That’s kind of been our MO on the road, not getting quality shots and not executing. A lot of dribbling and not much ball movement. That’s on me. My job is to get us in better position and I haven’t done a good job.”
Oregon’s back-to-back losses knocked it out of first place in the Pac-12 at 7-4, one game back of Colorado at 8-3 with a battle for the conference lead up next. The Ducks (18-6) are one game ahead of UCLA and USC, who are tied for fifth at 6-5.
“It’s February 8th and we are not making the progress we need to make,” Altman said. “We are not playing as well as we should and not competing like we should.”
Altman was asked if the Ducks have regressed from early in the season when they beat Seton Hall and Michigan to move into the top five of the national rankings.
“I don’t think we’ve gone backwards, it’s just that people are getting better and we are not,” he replied.
Oregon began the day by finding out it was projected as the No. 4 seed in the West Region during a midseason update from the NCAA selection committee, which had Oregon as the 14th overall seed in the field. The Ducks bused back to Eugene around midnight realizing they likely dropped down a line or two on the bracket with five weeks left before Selection Sunday.
Last season, Oregon’s loss at Oregon State on Feb. 16 dropped the Ducks to 6-6 in the Pac-12 and was followed by two more losses at USC and UCLA before a 10-game winning streak took them to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual national champion Virginia.
“We’ve been here before and last year, obviously, we were way worse,” Pritchard said. “We will try to regroup and come back and go on a run. We’ve got five home games left out of seven so make something happen.”