College basketball: Behind the scenes of Oregon's incredible week
On this last day of 2016, it is time to play ‘Did You Know?’
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JOIN THE TEAM.
Are coached by a man with his MBA, who once graduated magna cum laude?
Have a roster with enough Canadians to start a hockey franchise?
Are supported by a famous donor whose dream was to have the new arena named after the son he lost in a scuba diving accident?
Haven’t dropped a home game in 723 days?
Can choose from 10 different uniform colors and styles?
Won the first NCAA tournament in 1939 – and haven’t been back to the Final Four in the 77 years since?
And finally, just eliminated one third of the nation’s unbeaten records in 52 hours?
That’s how 2016 went out in Eugene. First, 13-0 UCLA showed up in Matthew Knight Arena and was beaten at the buzzer. Then the Ducks dropped 14-0 USC in a blow out. This year-end bash was special enough for recounting. Here are four days of Auld Lang Syne on the Oregon Trail:
Christmas is over, and Dana Altman – the magna cum laude coach with 19 consecutive winning seasons at Creighton and Oregon – has sensed a new purpose in practice. The Ducks might be 11-2, but the game has been a struggle, especially for star Dillon Brooks, who is still trying to recover from off-season foot surgery. They were ranked as highly as No. 4 but were summarily drilled by Baylor and upset by Georgetown and have settled back to No. 21. Chemistry and consistency have been elusive, Brooks an enigma.
“We’ve had a little trouble mixing together,” Altman says. “I think it’ll come. I’m not sure when.”
Now would be a good time. The next night, No. 2 UCLA will be the highest opponent ever to land in Matthew Knight Arena, which opened in 2011. USC will follow two days later.
“We’ve got a big week ahead of us,” Altman says.
Home is where the crazy floor design is. The theme is Deep in the Woods, with the figures of trees all around the baselines and sidelines, but nothing in the middle, giving the illusion of looking up to a blank sky from the forest floor. A lot of visitors have gotten lost in that forest – the last 33 in a row for that matter.
But what about UCLA, which already had successfully barnstormed through Rupp Arena in Kentucky?
“I’m a fan of the way the Bruins have played,” Altman says. “Anytime you have that brand of basketball, people are going to be excited. They’re fun to watch. People are going to gravitate toward that.”
UCLA is averaging 95.8 points per game. Oregon has held 12 consecutive opponents under 70.
Before the clash against the Bruins, Brooks pulls out his cell phone and finds a tweet that includes a replay from 10 years ago, when another Brooks from Oregon – this one Aaron – took down No. 1 UCLA with a big shot. Someone hoping for the power of suggestion, perhaps.
In 2015, Oregon had its worst attendance in two decades, but the arena is packed now. The home team is in its duck logo whites. The Bruins don’t seem much fazed by any of it in the second half as they go off on one of their customary 15-0 sprees and lead by eight with about three minutes left. They will shoot 53 percent, dispense 19 assists and score 87 points. Usually, that’s way good enough.
But not in Oregon. In the end, it comes down to Brooks, who buries a 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds left for the 89-87 win. In the celebration, Brooks gets tackled by teammate Jordan Bell.
“He should be a linebacker on Oregon football,” Brooks said later.
The winning play is called Pop, and Brooks has the power of decision what to do with the ball. “He felt like he liked the shot and he was right,” Altman says later. “Who am I to argue? Dillon likes those big moments. Hit or miss, he’s willing to take the consequences for it . . . It’s just nice to see him healthy and enjoying the game again, it’s been a long five months for him. At times the pressure of the season and the pressure of supposed to be really good just kind of got to him, which it does to a lot of players.”
Brooks said: “When you work hard on your game every day, you just dream of that moment. I want more moments like that.”
Brooks is from Ontario. So is Dylan Ennis, while Chris Boucher is from Quebec. That means three of the Ducks' top four scorers are Canadian. But they are Oregon's favorite sons now.
Altman likes the way his arena has become a weapon. Thirty-four wins in a row can’t be ignored.
“We’re starting to build something at home. This is us. This is our place,” he said.
But he needs to see more from his team, understanding the day is coming when Oregon must play UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, too.
“We won a home game by two points. You’re supposed to win at home. I still think they’re the team to beat,” Altman said. “Offensively we’re still way behind those guys. We’re a work in progress, we’ve got a long way to go. But we needed something good to happen.”
Come-back-to-earth words from Altman: “I told the guys it’s over. This one’s done. We’re not even going to talk about it. It’s all USC.”
News comes that South Dakota State lost at home Wednesday night, which means Oregon’s 34-game home streak is now the second longest in the nation, behind only Kansas’ 46.
Hard to know what to make of USC, which was picked seventh in the Pac-12 but has regularly been finding ways to win. History is pretty definitive. The Ducks have beaten the Trojans in 12 consecutive meetings.
“We’re 14-0, and they’ve won 34 straight at home,” USC coach Andy Enfield says. “So something has to give.”
Something gives, all right. The Trojans. Oregon opens the second half with a 21-3 run and breezes 84-61. Brooks follows his UCLA heroics with 28 points in 24 minutes, hitting nine of 10 shots. Yeah, he’s back.
The Ducks have 24 assists and only six turnovers, run their home streak to 35 games and make a very strong statement. They now have held 13 opponents under 70 points, blocked 116 shots to lead the nation and show five players averaging in double figures.
“We’re upset that we lost, but I’m sure the other 34 teams that they beat here consecutively were upset, too,” Enfield says.
So 2017 starts with Oregon on an undeniable roll. The future seems as bright as the Ducks’ yellow uniforms. But it is Boucher who warns, “If we lose next week, everything is gone.”
And it is Bell who mentions the fickle road of college basketball. "It switches so much. Before, we were `Ohhhh.' Then we were a bust. Now we're `Ohhhhhh.'"
Bottom line? "We know what we've got."
So does everyone else now. By late Friday night, the unbeaten records of UCLA and USC have been turned into confetti on the floor, ready for the push broom. What a party it had been.