Oregon is 8-2 after beating Alabama on Sunday, which isn’t a bad start by any stretch. Yet the Ducks have had their thunder stolen by UCLA in the Pac-12. That we can even say that is remarkable, and it speaks more to the job Dana Altman has done in Eugene than anything else.
And we have to remember that we are still barely in mid-December.
You will recall that much was expected of Oregon this season. With Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey opting to come back to school instead of going off to the NBA, and Chris Boucher getting another year of eligibility, the Ducks returned a squad that earned them rankings in the top five for many and a lot of talk of being Final Four or national title contenders. So when the Ducks were tied at 56 late with Alabama on Sunday, and at home no less, one had to wonder if they were going to drop another that won’t help them. Losing to Alabama would not be a bad loss, but if you’re a Final Four-caliber team, you don’t lose games like this at home.
Fortunately, the Ducks pulled it out, scoring the game’s final nine points beginning with a clutch three-pointer by Dylan Ennis to beat the shot clock.
Altman told the media the team hasn’t had the sense of urgency they need. They need to acquire it soon, if they didn’t on Sunday. While the Ducks are 8-2, they don’t have an quality win on their NCAA Tournament resume as of yet, and they almost certainly will not get it before Pac-12 play, which begins on December 28 against – you guessed it – UCLA, in Eugene. They have lost to Baylor and Georgetown, neither of which is a bad loss although the Hoyas look questionable. Visits from Montana, UNLV and Fresno State remain before then.
There’s no question Oregon is still very capable of making the kind of run most predicted before the season. The Ducks lead the nation in blocked shots thanks to Boucher and Jordan Bell, and Brooks is looking more like himself of late and played a season-high 31 minutes on Sunday. Tyler Dorsey looks even better than he did in his promising freshman campaign, Casey Benson remains a very underrated guard, while freshman Payton Pritchard has gained valuable early experience. Ennis is a solid glue guy that they surely missed last season, even as they did well without him on the floor. And there’s a lot of basketball still left to play.
Still, the start to the season hasn’t been quite what was expected of this team. On Sunday, they avoided a worse fate for now.
Oregon wasn’t the only team that survived a scare on Sunday. Tennessee went into Chapel Hill and led for much of the game, at one point by 15, before a late rally by North Carolina gave the Tar Heels a 73-71 victory. Robert Hubbs III had the game of a lifetime for Tennessee, scoring 21 points on 9-11 shooting, but North Carolina won the possession battle by just enough with their edge on the glass and in turnovers to pull it out. Tennessee shot 65 percent from the field in the first half, but cooled in the second half. All ten Tar Heels who played scored and grabbed a rebound.
Nevada also pulled out a close one, as Marcus Marshall capped a 32-point game by hitting a runner with less than a second to go as they beat Washington 87-85. The Wolfpack are 8-2 and look every bit the part of a Mountain West Conference challenger to San Diego State.
Others who pulled out nice close wins were Virginia Tech, who advanced to 8-1 with an 80-75 win over Ole Miss, and Florida State, 83-78 winners over Florida for their third straight win in this rivalry behind 24 points from Dwayne Bacon and Terance Mann’s first career double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds. Meanwhile, a couple of top teams like Saint Mary’s and Kentucky won in blowouts, and Oregon State lost to Savannah State 93-90 in overtime and St. John’s lost to LIU Brooklyn 74-73.
Northwestern is among those sentimental favorites seemingly every year of late, a program that has never been to the NCAA Tournament but has been agonizingly close. Last year, they were hit with a season-ending injury to a key player early on in Vic Law, and this season, it has happened again as Aaron Falzon underwent knee surgery that will end his season. The sophomore forward averaged 8.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game last season, and was a big threat from long range. He will seek a medical redshirt after playing in just three games this season, limited by the injury.
SMU is losing a player who was thought to be a key recruit, as Harry Froling has decided to transfer. The 6’11” Aussie forward didn’t play as much as many first anticipated and never quite got going.
It’s the beginning of a light week as many teams are off for final exams. A couple of games highlight the slate.
- The Under Armour Reunion at Madison Square Garden starts with Auburn taking on Boston College, then South Carolina takes on Seton Hall.
- Maryland looks to keep rolling as they host Jacksonville State, while UCF has started 7-1 and looks to continue their good start as they host Penn.