Ducks Reach New Heights With Final Four Appearance

It was a season every Oregon basketball fan will remember for a very long time.

And although the Ducks made the Final Four, the thought that the season could have lasted one more game still prevails.

Oregon more than proved to themselves and to the rest of the country that they belonged in the Final Four with their gutty performance, but ultimate defeat, to North Carolina. If just a couple of three-pointers had found their mark in the second half of the 77-76 loss, it would have been Oregon playing Gonzaga in the title game.

The Ducks expected to be in that position even before the historic season started. With the experience coming back from the Elite 8 team a season before, Oregon knew they had the talent to eventually reach its first Final Four since 1939. Not many teams around the country could actually say the Final Four is truly the goal and mean it.

Oregon was one of those few teams.

Once Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey announced they would be coming back to Eugene for another year after testing the NBA waters, Oregon felt like this season could be special. Thankfully for everyone involved, the Ducks were right and those two players were more than instrumental in taking the program to new heights.

Brooks needed to get over an off-season foot injury, which he did fairly quickly, missing just a handful of games. He returned in the Maui Classic, but Brooks wasn’t quite at 100 percent. Even so, just having Brooks back on the floor put the Ducks at a comfort level to where they won two games in Hawaii with wins over Tennessee and UConn. Brooks was at full strength less than a week later with a 68-63 win over Boise State and Oregon was poised to go on a serious roll.

They cruised through the rest of the non-conference schedule and were more than ready to take on then ranked No. 2 UCLA in what was billed as the Pac-12 Game of the Year. It was the conference opener for both teams and the game itself actually lived up to the hype. Brooks’ running three-pointer with less than a second left gave the Ducks the win and the start of Brooks vying for Player of the Year honors.

Oregon would go on to win its first eight league games before falling at Colorado, a house of horrors for the Ducks. They have yet to win at Boulder, but that loss wouldn’t detract them to share the regular season title with Arizona with a 16-2 Pac-12 mark.

The Ducks would then advance to the conference tournament title game, but not before the season would take a major detour the morning of that contest. Oregon learned center Chris Boucher had torn his ACL in the semifinal game with California. Arizona took advantage and took the tourney championship 83-80.

The Ducks were mentally shaken with the loss of Boucher and having just less than 12 hours to figure out an appropriate game plan without him wasn’t enough.

But Oregon would have almost a whole week to come up with a new way to play for the NCAA tourney without the 6-11 center. They would need it. They would also need someone else not named Brooks to step up and fill the void.

Not only did the Ducks get someone else, they got two someone elses in Dorsey and Jordan Bell.

Dorsey went on a tear from the outside, scoring nearly 12 more points than his average and Bell was blocking anything coming close to the basket. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional after scoring 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks.

Bell’s dominance didn’t stop at the Final Four. Against a much bigger front line, the junior still managed a monster game with 13 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. Unfortunately, it’s the rebound he couldn’t pull down is what might haunt him for a while as North Carolina kept possession of the ball after two missed free throws at the end of the game.

But if it wasn’t for Bell playing his game as well as making up for the loss of Boucher, Oregon probably doesn’t even get past Rhode Island the third round.

Bell’s incredible play in the tourney most likely upped his NBA stock and he might leave with another year of eligibility remaining. Dorsey proving he can also be a go-to guy and manage to hit the big shot also increased his draft potential. It was almost a guarantee Brooks was leaving early and Boucher was a senior, so that’s four huge holes coach Dana Altman might have to fill for the 2017-18 season.

Odds are the Ducks won’t lose Dorsey, Brooks and Bell, but even losing two of those three will be difficult. But the Ducks signing five-star recruit Troy Brown, Jr. will ease those pains. The 6-7 small forward from Las Vegas should immediately fill in the spot left by Brooks.

Brown is already doing some recruiting himself as he was quoted as saying that if Dorsey, Bell and Brooks should stay for one more season, Oregon will be primed for a national championship next season.

The Ducks also signed the No. 22 shooting guard in 6-3 Victor Bailey from Austin, Texas.

Even if those three starters leave early, Oregon will be young, but talented next season. Payton Pritchard is primed to have a breakout season at point guard and 6-7 Keith Smith should play a bigger role next year and be more than a defensive specialist.

Oregon hopes 6-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams’ progress continues because he’ll be their only experienced front line player. He’ll be joined by 6-10 Michael Cage, Jr., who had to redshirt this season due to concussion protocols.

It’s still too early to determine what the 2017-18 team is going to look like. Depending on who comes back, the Ducks could either be a national title favorite or a good Pac-12 team that should make the NCAA tournament.

~ Don Smalley