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The Morning Dish – Thursday, December 29, 2016

December 29, 2016 The Morning Dish No Comments

Remember when Oregon was a heavy favorite in the Pac-12 and a Final Four pick of just about everyone heading into this season?

It seems many do not, based on just far off the radar the Ducks fell this year after two early-season losses. Both of those came without star Dillon Brooks at full strength, but Oregon had been all but forgotten since a loss to Georgetown in the Maui Invitational quarterfinals. In fairness, some of that was because attention turned to UCLA and its talented offensive machine racing out to a 13-0 start, with wins over Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio State-two of those on national over-the-air television on CBS, mind you.

It’s difficult painting an athletic department practically financed by a behemoth shoe company as an underdog, but while the Ducks headed into their game against second-ranked UCLA Wednesday ranked 21st themselves, one might’ve thought that was No. 121 for as relatively little talk as there was about them and this game going in. It should’ve been touted as the game of the year in the Pac-12, maybe one of the biggest games in the country all season, yet it almost seemed like this was just considered a continuation of the coronation of UCLA as one of the top handful of teams in the country.

Indeed, the Ducks are still around, and they’re going to be a factor at the top of the Pac-12 after edging UCLA 89-87 as Brooks hit a pull-up three-pointer with less than a second left for the winning points. The Bruins suffered their first loss of the season, in part because Bryce Alford stunningly missed the front end of the one-and-one with eight seconds left in the game. We’ll stop short of calling it one of the best games of the year so far (whether it worked or not, UCLA’s offense late of Lonzo Ball dribbling away 25 seconds of shot clock-with no five-second closely guarded call now-before driving late created some incredibly boring possessions in the final minutes) but Brooks’ triple was unquestionably one of the biggest clutch shots of the season so far.

(Another side note/question: why is it that some want to take the one-and-one on free throws out of college basketball??? Of course that’s rhetorical-we know it’s because of people’s obsession with making the sport a less-talented copy of the NBA. But the drama the one-and-one produced at the end of this game was incredible.)

UCLA appeared to have this one in tenuous control down the stretch and outshot (53.1% to 44.8%) and out-rebounded (34-32) Oregon and also matched the hosts’ 11 three-pointers. The Ducks got to the free throw line 25 times to the Bruins’ 12, and UCLA also was hurt by 14 turnovers.

Brooks was the go-to player everyone remembers with 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists, while freshman Payton Pritchard also added 15 points and nine assists. Pritchard has taken over the point guard position for Oregon, and that change is a sign of the chemistry adjustment this year’s Ducks are having to make, with a number of players’ roles adjusting with the additions of Pritchard and Dylan Ennis to this year’s squad.

The offense is not clicking at the same rate it was a year ago, but the other side of that is this team is better defensively than it’s been in some time. Plus, you can’t put a price tag on experience, and the Ducks now have it after winning Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles a year ago.

Oregon will suddenly start being recognized today for its 10-game winning streak. Even as they may have picked up a couple early losses, though, the Ducks never really left. Formidable as UCLA has looked this year-and looked at times Wednesday night-the Pac-12 title still runs through Eugene until proven otherwise.

Side Dishes:

  • Nebraska‘s Tim Miles seemed like one frustrated coach just 10 days earlier when his team lost at home to Gardner-Webb, the latest in a developing trend of such losses for the Cornhuskers. There’s not many coaches in the country who could’ve used more the result that Nebraska picked up Wednesday night when it scored a huge 87-83 win at Indiana. It’s a huge win for the Cornhuskers and Miles, one of the real good guys in the sport. As far as the Hoosiers go, one is an accident, two is a concern, if not yet a trend. Indiana now has losses to IPFW and Nebraska, two games that take a lot of luster off wins over Kansas and North Carolina. Clearly the Hoosiers are good enough to beat anyone in a single-game scenario, but they also are vulnerable enough to lose to a lot of teams one wouldn’t think they should.
  • As bad as IU losing at home to the Huskers is, top-ranked Villanova nearly had an even more major slip-up on ice itself. The Wildcats barely defeated DePaul at home, finally prevailing 68-65 with Josh Hart to the rescue again (25 points).
  • Virginia just continues to outdo itself. The Cavaliers controlled Louisville most of the way, leading by as many as 21 in a 61-53 win on the road. It is incredible just what talent and athleticism plus a focused system can do, even when it doesn’t have top-of-the-line recruits. Also in the ACC: Florida State warmed up in the second half for an 88-72 win over Wake Forest, and North Carolina defeated Monmouth 102-74, a margin that blew up after the Hawks were whistled for three technical fouls in less than a minute early in the second half.
  • Creighton is still undefeated overall and got a jump on Big East play with an impressive 89-75 win at home over Seton Hall. The Pirates’ strength is their starting five, but the Bluejays’ was considerably better in this one, with all five starters scoring at least 13 points and freshman center Justin Patton (17 points, nine rebounds) outplaying veteran SHU post Angel Delgado (10 points, 10 boards). The Jays are humming offensively.
  • Purdue blew out Iowa 89-67 in a game not as close as the final score indicated. The Boilermakers may well be the favorites in the Big Ten.
  • UNC Wilmington had its best chance to register a big name victory this year, but the Seahawks were defeated soundly by Clemson 87-73. UNCW shot just 40%, including an ice-cold first half, but the bigger problem was the Tigers’ 55.6% shooting, much of it coming in the paint. Also, this is an example of what happens when a team like Clemson schedules a team like UNCW-the Tigers now have a quality win over a team that could win 25+ games this year and is the favorite in the CAA.
  • Cincinnati opened AAC play with a clutch 56-50 win at Temple. The Bearcats increasingly look like a top-25 team. Also in the American, Houston rolled at Connecticut 62-46 with Rob Gray scoring 20 points while the Huskies played with just seven scholarship players and without Jalen Adams, who remained out with a concussion.
  • Pittsburgh outlasted Marshall 112-106, almost coughing up a 29-point second-half lead as the Thundering Herd kept firing away even after being down 78-49 with less than 15 minutes left in the game.
  • Finally, North Dakota State ended South Dakota State’s 34-game home court winning streak, rallying from a 15-point halftime deficit for an 80-69 win and a big early blow in the Summit League race.

Today’s Menu:

  • SEC play begins, and the matchups include Georgia at Auburn (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU), Kentucky traveling to Mississippi (8 p.m., ESPN2) and Florida on the road at Arkansas.
  • The WCC opens conference play, and Saint Mary’s faces a tough road test to start with a trip to Loyola Marymount (11 p.m., ESPNU). Undefeated Gonzaga also hosts Pepperdine.
  • Big South, Horizon, Northeast, Southland and Summit all get heavy into league play, with perhaps the best game featuring surprising Wright State at Oakland.
  • A solid non-conference matchup between former Virginia CAA rivals has William & Mary in Norfolk to play Old Dominion.

Have a terrific Thursday of the week between holidays.

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