Oregon’s balanced attack has the unheralded Ducks on the brink of their first Final Four berth in 77 years.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The bench danced in its white “Mighty Oregon” warm-up jerseys. The mascot stomped its webbed feet. Inside the home arena of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, college basketball’s Increasingly Mighty Ducks kept coming. They kept rebounding, kept scoring, kept treating Duke the way that Duke treats most teams in most seasons—as an inferior opponent.
Is Oregon good enough now? Good enough to make the Final Four? Good enough to win it? Did the Ducks 82–68 dismantling of Duke at the Honda Center late Thursday finally fill the neon yellow bandwagon? Probably not, and that is fine. That is normal for the football powerhouse with the sneaky-good hoops team.
That sentiment—that Oregon never seems quite good enough, no matter how many games it wins—is emblematic of the Ducks’ season. They are the team that many consider good but few seem to consider great. Perhaps that’s unfair. No matter. The Ducks captured the Pac-12 regular-season crown, won the conference tournament and dispatched three teams in the Big Dance with relative ease.
On Thursday, the Ducks didn’t just beat the Blue Devils. They overpowered and overwhelmed them and sent their own coach, Dana Altman, to the Elite Eight for the first time. Oregon plays Oklahoma here on Saturday, hoping to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 77 years.
“They’re one step away from utopia,” said Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach.
Altman tried to convey the same idea. He really did—and he really failed. His face betrayed not even a hint of emotion. His expression was as stoic as his voice was monotone. “The team’s excited,” he said, sounding not even a little bit excited.
“I’m excited,” he said, sounding whatever the opposite of excited is.
“We’re very excited for the opportunity,” he said.
At that, you’ll have to take him at his word.
The Ducks (31–6) took a six-point lead into halftime, behind nine points from reserve forward Jordan Bell. They opened the second half with back-to-back three-pointers from sophomore guard Casey Benson. This was also emblematic of the Ducks’ season, in that they hurt Duke (25–11) in different and sometimes unexpected ways.
Where the Blue Devils, like most college basketball teams, rely on star players like freshman forward Brandon Ingram and sophomore guard Grayson Allen, Oregon needs all seven of the players in its rotation. Sometimes, it’s first-team All-Pac-12 honorees like sophomore forward Dillon Brooks and senior forward Elgin Cook. Other times it’s Benson, the Boy Scout doppelganger. Or Bell, the inside force. Or Chris Boucher. Or Tyler Dorsey.
“They were an old, extremely well-coached team,” Krzyzewski said. “Great athletes playing together. They knocked us back. They were always in control. Right at the end, I thought we could do a Texas A&M thing. But …” He trailed off. There were no miracle comebacks on Thursday.
To those who have not paid attention, and those who refused to believe, Oregon reinforced its strength on Thursday. Brooks led the Ducks in scoring with 22 points, but five Ducks reached double figures. Six Ducks played at least 18 minutes. Three Ducks grabbed at least five rebounds. That’s Oregon, a team so balanced it’s like an accountant fills out the box score.
The player who most caught Krzyzewski’s attention was Brooks, Oregon’s 6'7", 225-pound Canadian-born forward who has the athleticism and body-type of an NFL tight end. The Duke coach found Oregon’s star on the court afterward and leaned in close. “I just congratulated him,” Krzyzewski said. “He makes their team go. He doesn’t have a position. He plays all five positions, and he plays all of them well.”
Brooks had a different recollection. He had buried a deep and unnecessary three-pointer with seven meaningless seconds left and celebrated like Oregon had won the title, not this game. He said that Coach K told him he was “too good of a player to be showing off at the end.” To which Brooks later added, “He’s right.”
Oregon seems immune to pressure. It entered the second week of the NCAAs as the Pac-12’s final remaining team. Five conference counterparts fell in their first games of the tournament. Utah lost in the second round. Only Oregon made it through to the regional semifinals, and once there, all Wednesday its players were asked to explain how a conference that ranked among the toughest in the country stumbled so quickly and all at once.
For Duke, Thursday marked the end of an unusually trying season. The Blue Devils won the NCAA title last April, behind a trio of NBA draft picks (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones) and another player, Quinn Cook, who landed in the D-League. The talent drain, coupled with injuries throughout this season, left Duke more vulnerable than in most seasons. The Blue Devils lost four of their final seven games, before righting their season at the last possible moment in the tournament.
With Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant and Apple CEO Tim Cook in the stands in support of the Blue Devils, Oregon exposed Duke’s weaknesses. Namely, defense and athleticism. The Ducks made almost half their shots (32 of 65) and most of their looks were open. Oregon also out-rebounded the Blue Devils, 42–32. Krzyzewski, aware of this Duke squad’s limitations, said “I’m proud of my team. We’ve had a terrific year. Not a good one.”
Ingram, the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, finished with a game-high 24 points. Of his likely departure from Duke’s campus in Durham, N.C., he said only, “I’m not really worried about that now.”
Oklahoma waits for the Ducks on Saturday, and the Sooners, with their big-time backcourt and star Buddy Hield, seem tailored to give Oregon problems. The Ducks have struggled against elite guards this season, and now a team with elite guards stands between them and their first Final Four since 1939.
“Right now,” Altman said, “it’s about Oregon. It’s about us.”
He was excited. Really. He promised.