Oregon was not supposed to win the Pac-12, grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and come within a legendary Buddy Hield performance of the Final Four last season. The Ducks were unranked in the preseason polls and only picked to finish fourth in the conference after losing star guard Joe Young. Instead, Dana Altman's team blew past expectations with a whole that exceeded the sum of its parts by pairing new-school versatility with old school physicality.
Oregon won't be catching anyone by surprise this year. The Ducks bring back three of their four leading scorers, return a key guard from injury, add another impact JUCO transfer and unveil a trio of four-star freshmen that has the program thinking big. Oregon hasn't been to the Final Four since 1939 and this team is absolutely good enough to do it.
In junior Dillion Brooks, Oregon has a bonafide All-American. Brooks embodies the versatility that made the Ducks thrive last year, giving Altman a 6'7, 225-pound wing to slide up and down the lineup. He's a relentless slasher and rugged defender who made serious strides as a playmaker in his sophomore year. The only question is his health. Brooks had offseason surgery on his left foot and will likely be sidelined until the end of non-conference play.
Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey would be a prime candidate for "breakout player" lists if he wasn't already so good as a freshman. Dorsey has great size at 6'4 and was the team's best shooter as a freshman, knocking down 40.6% percent of the 4.6 three he attempted per game. The next step for Dorsey is improving as a decision maker after he finished with 71 assists vs. 69 turnovers in his debut season. He'll be joined in the backcourt once again by Casey Benson, who happened to lead the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.88:1) last year.
The front court lacks depth but should be rock solid as long as its three principle components stay healthy. Chris Boucher brings an ultra-rare blend of elite shot blocking and capable three-point shooting. Jordan Bell is the type of stout defensive anchor every great team needs. Kavell Bigby-Williams follows Boucher's footsteps of a former JUCO Player of the Year who adds another diverse skill set up front.
Oregon should be deeper than last year and it has the added benefit of experience that comes with returning so many key players from an Elite Eight squad. Altman's teams always perform offensively -- Oregon has been in the top 25 of offensive efficiency four of the last five years -- and this roster has the makeup to defend, too. There are other teams with more NBA talent, but few that enter the season as battle-tested. The Ducks may have been a surprise last season, but no one can say they were a fluke.
Oregon exceeded expectations last season in large part because Altman was a step ahead of everyone else in embracing the modern tenants of the game. He recruited players who didn't fit into traditional boxes but had the skill set and demeanor to be successful.
This challenge this year is to maintain that positional flexibility without departed forwards Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin. Altman should feel confident in his ability to do it. He again has a versatile roster that gives him the potential to roll out so many different lineups.
Brooks has the ability to slide from shooting guard to power forward. Dorsey was a point guard recruit in high school who excelled off the ball last season because he has the size to defend either backcourt spot and can also knock down a spot-up jumper. Boucher is the most unique player of the bunch. He's one of the skinniest big men in college basketball at 6'10, 200 pounds, but he finished sixth in the country in block rate, per KenPom, while also making 39 threes at a 34 percent clip.
The backcourt will get a boost from Dylan Ennis, the former Villanova guard who missed last season with a foot injury. In his sixth year of college basketball, Ennis should be able to play point or off-guard and give the Ducks another catch-and-shoot option. Bigby-Williams is an exciting addition to the front court. He averaged 16.8 points per game, 13.6 rebounds per game, and 5.9 blocks per game while shooting 31 percent from three last season at the junior college level.
Freshmen M.J. Cage and Keith Smith also fit the mold of what Oregon is looking for in terms of versatility. Altman found a formula last season, and he's going to keep riding with it well into the future.
Even with more depth this season, Oregon doesn't have a ton of room for error. They don't have the overwhelming talent advantage Duke and Kentucky enjoy. They don't have a potential top five NBA draft pick like Kansas does in Josh Jackson. College basketball should be more top heavy this year than it was last season, and that could be a concern for an Oregon team that lacks megawatt star power.
Oregon is going to need each of their top players to take a step forward this year if it wants to compete for a national championship. That's why Brooks' foot injury is a real concern. He should be back for Pac-12 play, but he'll need to quickly reestablish his conditioning and shake off the rust for another shot at a 1-seed.
Oregon should find inspiration in Villanova's run last season. Brooks can be a rough facsimile of Josh Hart, Benson can do a convincing enough Ryan Arcidiacono impression and Bell can anchor the middle like Daniel Ochefu did, even if he lacks his size. Villanova won it all by playing better together than its individual talent might suggest. Oregon wants to do the same thing.