Almost everyone out on the West Coast agreed when the season began: The Oregon Ducks were probably the team to beat in the Pac-12 Conference.
Sixteen of the 25 media members who voted in the conference’s preseason poll picked Oregon to win the league. Bol Bol, people figured, could wind up as the best player in the conference and the freshman center’s supporting cast was good enough to get the Ducks back to the NCAA Tournament after they missed it in 2018.
It didn’t exactly start off well for Oregon. The Ducks lost three of their first seven games, including a home game against the Texas Southern Tigers.
Two games later, things got even worse. Bol went down with a foot injury in a win against the Boise State Broncos. The likely first-round pick’s career in Eugene ended after just nine games of averaging 21.0 points.
Realistic Tournament hopes faded fast for Oregon. The Ducks lost twice to the UCLA Bruins. They lost twice to the Oregon State Beavers. They started 2-4 in Pac-12 play and got the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament.
And then Oregon started winning. After a three-game losing streak in February, the Ducks ripped off eight straight wins, including four in a row to win the Pac-12 tournament and steal an automatic berth to the NCAA Tourney. Later this week, Oregon, a No. 12 seed, will try to run its winning streak to nine against the No. 5-seed Wisconsin Badgers.
The recipe has been a weird one for the Ducks. Oregon now starts four forwards — all of whom are 6-foot-9 or taller — around junior guard Payton Pritchard.
Since the Ducks went to their “tall-ball” lineup for the last game before the winning streak began, Oregon is averaging 33.4 rebounds per game to its opponents’ 28.7 with single-game rebound edges like 39-23, 36-24 and 32-20 in its 68-48 rout of the Washington Huskies in the Pac-12 championship Saturday.
If you want to simplify things, just look to Louis King. The freshman small forward was a McDonald’s All-American like Bol and he finally seems to be living up to his potential. The 6-9 small forward scored in double figures in every game of the Pac-12 tournament, including a 20-point game against the Utah Utes on Thursday.
The Ducks were always too talented to be outside the Tournament conversation. Now it’s not crazy to envision them making a run.