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Joe Boozell | | January 29, 2016

How the Ducks have risen to the top of the Pac-12

  Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey celebrate after taking down Arizona in Tucson.

After a huge Thursday night win against Arizona, Oregon is sitting pretty at 17-4 and 6-2 in the Pac-12. The Ducks dealt the Wildcats their first home loss in almost three years, and they’re now in the drivers’ seat in a competitive conference.

“To win 49 games in a row at home, that’s just incredible” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said of Arizona after the game. “We were fortunate tonight, we played really well after a slow start.”

Take a step back, and you’ll realize that what Oregon is doing is pretty remarkable considering the circumstances. Outside of Arizona, ironically, the Ducks have been as snake-bitten with injuries as any of the top teams in the country.

Dylan Ennis, a heralded graduate transfer from Villanova, was supposed to mentor freshman point guard Tyler Dorsey and handle a good portion of the lead ball handling responsibilities. He’s been ruled out for the season with a foot injury. Dorsey missed two games himself in the middle of the season, and Jordan Bell, last year’s freshman shot-blocking sensation, has missed seven games due to injury.

And yet, in late January, the Ducks have the inside track at winning the league in which Joe Lunardi projects to have a conference-leading eight teams in the NCAA tournament.

So how is Oregon doing all of this?

Men's Basketball: Oregon Ducks beat Arizona Wildcats
The Ducks are athletic, sure. But they play smart on offense. Altman’s squad is living proof of where efficient shot selection can take you -- Oregon rarely posts up, and that’s not a coincidence. The Ducks are stocked with ferocious rim attackers, 3-point shooters and springy big men who will clean up misses around the cup. That’s what basketball has turned into in the year 2016, and Oregon is embracing it.

In order to finally outduel Arizona, the class of the Pac-12 for years, Oregon needed to exploit every advantage. It did just that.

"Our program, we've been chasing Arizona and we still are," Altman said. "When we recruit players, one of the first questions we ask: Can he help us win the league, can he help us beat Arizona?"

Dillon Brooks certainly helped the Ducks best the Wildcats. Chief among the tough-nosed Oregon drivers, Brooks is a basketball bully, in the kindest sense of the phrase.

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Oregon’s pet play is the nearly unstoppable Dorsey-Brooks pick-and-roll, as Brooks is an expert at using the slightest hint of misdirection to find a crease in the defense. From there, he uses a unique combination of speed, strength and deception to get to the hole at will. Brooks absolutely feasts on opposing lineups that don’t feature a rim protector, and he’s topped 20 points in four of his past five games.

The ‘stretch 4’ is a popular basketball term, but the ‘playmaking 4’ is more valuable. Brooks doesn’t really have a defined position, but a guy who can set screens, blow by bigs off the bounce, hit the occasional 3 and find teammates when defenses overreact is immensely valuable to have. At this point, Brooks qualifies as a playmaking power forward. Those aren’t a dime a dozen in college basketball.

The other half of that vaunted screen-and-roll duo is Dorsey, who is quietly among the best freshmen in the nation. The silky-smooth guard from Los Angeles is shooting nearly 44 percent from 3-point range this season and can get to the rim at will. If defenders pay too much attention to Brooks, Dorsey will make them pay.

Senior forward Elgin Cook is essentially Brooks-lite, as he features a herky-jerky slashing game that is a chore for opponents to stop. Cook and Brooks usually toggle between the forward spots, switching defensive assignments with ease. It pays to have interchangeable pieces as both ends of the floor.

The Ducks generally play small, but they can go big by pairing Bell and Chris Boucher. Boucher has been a revelation for Oregon at the center spot this season -- the Ducks outscore opponents by 31.9 points per possession with him on the floor, which is tops on the team among rotation players.

In the NCAA tournament, you must be able to excel at multiple styles if you want any shot of making it to the Final Four. The Ducks can play big, small, fast or slow, and that’s perhaps their greatest attribute. When Oregon started out flat against Arizona, even its leadership proved to be flexible.

"[The mood] was down. But our leaders came together and got us in the right direction," Brooks said. "Dwayne [Benjamin]'s more of a verbal person and Elgin's more on the court showing his game. This time it was reversed. Dwayne showed it on the court and Elgin was talking."

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On Thursday night against Arizona, the Wildcats made 12 of their first 13 shots from the field -- the Ducks started out the game in man-to-man. Altman adjusted, mostly using a matchup 2-3 zone for the rest of the game, and Sean Miller’s squad really had no answer for it.

Oregon is long, and when Benjamin enters the game, features lineups with four or more guys that are at least 6-6. Arizona turned the ball over 19 times on Thursday, and that’s been a trend for Oregon foes. The Ducks rank 29th in the country in steal percentage, per KenPom.

This is all uncharted territory for the Ducks, who haven’t won a regular season conference championship since 2002. But Altman’s squad is trending upward at the right time, and in a college basketball season where craziness seems to be the norm, being extremely versatile and prospering through adversity can’t possibly be a negative.

Not many teams in the country can say both of those things about themselves.

Oregon can.

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