The Ducks have already vanquished Holy Cross, St. Joseph's and Duke and now prepare for the No. 2 seed Sooners
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli might want to spring for a more extensive television package. Or at least make a point to catch the West Coast highlights. Because 24 hours before his team squared off against Oregon in the West region of the NCAA tournament, he stuffed a size-17 sneaker into his mouth, admitting that until he heard on TV recently that the Ducks were ranked fifth in the country, he had no idea they were, you know, that good.
After making clear that he didn't intend any disrespect, he appeared to contradict himself. "But," he added, "if you said to our players, Did Oregon win the Pac-12 or did Arizona? They would lean to Arizona. As would basketball people in Philadelphia."
About that. Oregon wasn't just the best team in the Pac-12, the Ducks' 25–6 record in the regular season was the school's best in 77 years. (Their 1938–39 squad, nicknamed the Tall Firs, won the NCAA's first basketball tournament, decades before anyone associated madness with March.) The latest version out of Eugene ranked second in RPI after playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, and Oregon won both the Pac-12 title and the conference tournament to secure the program's first No. 1 seed.
So the Ducks, ahem, flew under the radar only for those with faulty surveillance. Martelli's comments, meanwhile, registered more than a blip out West. Junior forward Chris Boucher forwarded the quote to teammates on a group text message thread. Coach Dana Altman reminded his players of Martelli's words in their scouting meeting before the tip-off in Spokane. "Guys felt really disrespected," said sophomore forward Dillon Brooks. "I don't know why they wouldn't know who we are. We were insulted."
In fairness to Martelli (and at least some of the East Coast), the Ducks were unranked for most of December and as the least heralded of the top seeds, the team that most needed to make a statement. Consider it made.
As madness unfolded around the country—the largest last-minute deficit overcome in college basketball history (Texas A&M over Northern Iowa); a last-second tip-in by a former beach volleyball player (Notre Dame over Stephen F. Austin); a disconsolate Bill Murray after Wisconsin stunned Xavier, where his son Luke is an assistant (take that, Crying Jordan!)—the Ducks advanced with relatively little drama. They battered Holy Cross 91–52 last Friday, then survived a valiant run by Saint Joe's to earn a 69–64 win. That set up a date with fourth-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim on Thursday, which the Ducks won, 82–68.
And there was Martelli after Oregon beat his team, now fully aware of the Ducks' talent. "Whatever they got at birth—long, size, speed—they didn't get that when they got to Oregon," he said, again adding that he meant no disrespect. "They got that in their DNA. They got that at birth."
The Ducks possess exactly the qualities Martelli described: length, size, speed. Five of the seven players in their regular rotation stand between 6'6" and 6'10". They swarm the court like a legion of zombie clones, clad in highlighter-yellow uniforms that are as dazzling as their skill sets.
There's the 6'10" Boucher, from Montreal. He didn't play organized basketball until age 19, after he had graduated high school. He arrived at Eugene this season following stints at a Canadian prep school and a couple of junior colleges. His varied strengths? Rejecting shots and launching them: He was the first player in Pac-12 history to block 100 shots and make 30 triples in one season.
There's Elgin Cook, the 6'6" senior forward from Milwaukee, the most outstanding player in the conference tournament, who poured in 18 points against the Hawks. There's also Tyler Dorsey, the 6'4" combo guard from Los Angeles, who started all but one game as a freshman and averaged 13.7 points and 1.9 assists. He cut his lip early against Holy Cross, waved away the trainers and played like a vampire while sipping his own blood.
And there's Brooks, a 6'7" sophomore forward from outside Toronto. He led the team in scoring with 16.8 points per game and is identified most easily by his faux hawk. He came from the vaunted CIA Bounce amateur program that has produced two No. 1 NBA draft picks in Anthony Bennett (2013) and Andrew Wiggins ('14), and another '14 first-rounder in Tyler Ennis.
After the NCAA tournament last season, a stress fracture in his leg shelved Brooks for more than two months. "We had to unplug him," says assistant coach Mike Mennenga. "This is a guy who willed himself to become a great player. It was probably the toughest thing he's gone through in his life."
On Sunday, Brooks took over against Saint Joseph's, scoring six of his game-high 25 points after the Hawks went on a 10–0 run to forge a tie at 45 midway through the second half. Saint Joe's led 58–51 with 4:47 left; during the next timeout sophomore guard Casey Benson patrolled the Oregon huddle, shouting, "We're not going to lose!"
Brooks made sure of that. His three-pointer from the right wing gave Oregon a 64–62 advantage with 1:22 remaining. Then he spearheaded a defensive effort that caused a shot-clock violation and forced junior forward DeAndre' Bembry, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, into a turnover with nine seconds left.
The biggest concern for the Ducks before the tournament—the biggest one still as they prep for No. 2 seed Oklahoma in the Elite Eight—is their defense. Since 2002 only one team outside the top 20 in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (North Carolina in 2009) has won a national title, and Oregon entered the Big Dance at No. 50. But Altman relied on his D in the second half against the Hawks. "Fellas, we got a lot of time, we can't exchange baskets," he told his team with just under five minutes left. "This is going to be won on the defensive end. We have to get some stops."
After the buzzer sounded Altman sat in a folding chair outside the locker room, scanning the stat sheet, shaking his head, groaning as if the Ducks had lost. "The last 10 minutes," he said, "I feel like I lived a whole life!"
They had won, of course, reaching the Sweet 16 for the second time since Altman arrived in 2010–11. What has struck Kevin McKenna, Altman's assistant for all six campaigns in Eugene and for nine of Altman's 16 seasons with Creighton, is his boss's consistency throughout. "He repeats the same phrases over and over," McKenna said last week as he sipped a kale smoothie inside the locker room. "Up 10, down 10, same approach: Active hands. Share the ball. Go out there and fight."
In many ways Altman, 57, is the same coach he was at Western State and two community colleges. His philosophy is borrowed from NBA principles, in that he looks for mismatches to exploit and runs a high-post offense that rewards versatility.
He's never had a team as versatile and talented—and maddening—as this one, despite the departure of guard Joseph Young, last season's Pac-12 player of the year. "Dana is a reserved person," said Rob Mullens, Oregon's athletic director. "But he was real excited going into this season."
The Ducks opened with six wins but lost twice in their next three games to UNLV and Boise State. In January they stumbled at Oregon State and at Colorado. In February, Cal spanked them by 20 points, and they fell to Stanford two nights later. "We were just not very good," Altman says.
Added Benson, "We knew that was a crucial moment in our season. It forced us to regroup."
The Oregon team that snapped Arizona's 49-game home-winning streak on Jan. 28 is the one that showed up and seized the Pac-12 tournament. And that's the team that arrived in Spokane and continued to roll in Anaheim. The Ducks watched Michigan State, a team many pundits tabbed as more deserving of a top seed than Oregon, fall to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in the first round. They looked at one another and resolved to avoid another early exit.
Late Sunday inside their locker room Oregon players passed around a team iPad that was attached to a thick case that doubled as a selfie stick. They mugged for the camera, flashing O's with both hands, alternating between smiles and stare-downs.
Then they posted those pictures, so that anyone who didn't know before now knew the simple truth. The Ducks may not be perfect, or all that consistent, but they are deep and balanced and capable. Even Phil Martelli, especially Phil Martelli, is now aware of that.