Ducks take 'good step,' now look to bigger things
EUGENE Oregon's road to the Pac-12 regular-season championship is not unimpeded, but the Ducks have given themselves a legitimate opportunity.
Saturday's 91-81 Civil War romp past Oregon State at Matt Knight Arena puts Oregon (21-6 overall, 10-4 in Pac-12 action) in a tie with Arizona atop the conference heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Ducks' immediate goals are clear: Win their final four games, beginning with a Wednesday night home date with Washington State, to assure themselves at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title. Then win the Pac-12 post-season tournament, which would guarantee a very high seed to position themselves for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Oregon entered Saturday with a No. 3 national RPI ranking, which weighs heavily in seeding for the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks lived up to that billing by dominating their in-state rival in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the final score would indicate.
The Ducks led Oregon State 51-28 at halftime and by a 77-52 count with 7:50 to go. The Beavers outscored them 29-14 the rest of the way, but that mattered mostly to the gamblers who bet on them to cover the 11-point spread.
After a week of losses to California and Stanford in the Bay Area, the Ducks were on somewhat wobbly terms as they took to the court Saturday night.
"We figured we are in danger right now," said senior center Chris Boucher, who was as big as any Duck against the Beavers, collecting 14 points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals. "We're trying to win the conference."
They returned to form against OSU to avenge an earlier loss at Corvallis and extend their homecourt win streak to 23 games, matching a school record.
"It sucked that had to be our wakeup call, dropping two games," said UO forward Elgin Cook, who contributed 16 points and four boards. "You don't want to have that feeling again. We don't want to lose again."
The Ducks, who are 16-0 at home this season, might not lose again if they could only play them all in the friendly confines of Matt Arena. That's not the way it works, but they're in better position now than they were a week ago.
"I don't want to make a big deal about last weekend," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "You see teams all over the country have bad outings. But I was disappointed. I was hoping (the Oregon players) would come back and play focused and alert. The first half, they did a great job."
Boy, did they. Oregon State's meal ticket, Gary Payton II, helped out by picking up two fouls and departing 4:28 into the game. The Ducks attacked through the first half and the Beavers, timid against Oregon pressure, wilted.
'Our activity was really good in the first half," Altman said. "We did a really good job of flying to the ball. We weren't quite as sharp that second half, but we kept (the lead) at 20 til near the end. We were able to finish it and get out with a win. It's a good step for us."
Freshman guard Tyler Dorsey matched his season high with 25 points, knocking down 9 of 16 shots from the field, including 3 of 7 from 3-point range.
The Beavers "were in a zone most of the time," Altman said. "He's our best shooter. He made some good plays. He got to the basket. Guys did a good job of finding him.
"Our ball movement was pretty good. All the guys made the extra pass. I don't remember many bad shots. We missed some easy ones, but there weren't too many that we forced up."
Sophomore forward Dillon Brooks -- on a short list of legitimate candidates for Pac-12 player of the year -- contributed 17 points, hitting 10 of 10 foul shots on a night when Oregon made 29 of 33 at the line. Sophomore point guard Casey Benson did what he does, scoring eight points and handing out five assists with no turnovers in his 32 minutes.
It was a festive night for the partisan throng of 12,364, Oregon's first sellout crowd in more than a year.
"That first half, the building really had a buzz," Altman said. "What a tremendous difference that makes. The energy the students gave us was really something. I hope they had fun."
Oregon State got 23 points and six rebounds from freshman Tres Tinkle -- coach Wayne Tinkle's son -- and too little from everyone else. They yielded more points to the Ducks than to any opponent this season.
The Beavers (15-10, 6-8) entered Saturday's game with a solid No. 36 RPI ranking. But they probably most go 3-1 in their remaining regular-season games and win at least once in the conference tournament to gain their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1990. Two of the games left -- USC and UCLA -- are on the road, where the Beavers are 3-7 this season.
Altman has presided over the most sustained era of success in Oregon basketball history. Since he took over in 2010-11, the Ducks have had six straight winning seasons. It's the first time that has happened in Eugene since 1973-78, when Dick Harter's Kamikaze Kids were terrorizing the opposition in more ways than one.
Altman's UO teams have won at least 20 games every season. His overall record at Oregon is 144-63, and the Ducks have gone 61-33 in conference games over that span. They have made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three seasons.
But Altman hasn't yet done what Ernie Kent did twice -- get the Ducks to the Elite Eight in the Big Dance. With parity at what seems like an all-time high throughout the country this season, they might be able to get there this time.
They have plenty of firepower on the perimeter with Brooks and Dorsey, a bonafide shot-blocker in Boucher and some toughness inside in Cook and reserve forward Jordan Bell. But Altman's rotation runs only seven deep. And it's not a meaty group, with the 6-10, 190-pound Boucher the biggest presence in the middle. Altman doesn't even list a center on his roster.
"If we're going to win, we have to bring intensity," Altman said. "Because of our lack of size and girth, we're not very big. If we let down just a little bit, people can get to the basket on us.
"But if we're really active, our length can give people problems. Activity is a big thing for us. We have to move to be effective."
The best thing the Ducks have going is Altman, who has somehow negotiated heavy losses of important seniors every season and continued to build his program to relevance on a national level. The man can coach -- he has twice been named Pac-12 coach of the year, including last season -- and he might be doing his best job with his current group.
But the days of winter are growing short. The time for the Ducks to be playing their best basketball begins now.
"We're here in February, getting ready for March," Altman said. "They're all big games. We had a great 10-game stretch, going 9-1. We played together. We lost it last weekend. We didn't bring it. We got popped. I wanted to see how the guys responded. They responded pretty good.
"The conference tournament is going to be a zoo. There are a lot of teams that are talented enough and deep enough to win. It's going to be a lot of fun. It's only Feb. 20. We have to get better. I'll be anxious to see how our guys respond, how much pressure they put on themselves to get better."