Everyone loves a round number, and Arizona was shooting for a big one when Oregon came to the McKale Center last week. The Wildcats were proud owners of the nation's longest home winning streak, 49 straight victories that dated back three seasons and encapsulated two runs to the Elite Eight and a Sweet 16. This night was set to be a celebration -- the 50th consecutive win and a testament to the program's rebirth under Sean Miller as the West Coast's biggest bully.
Oregon had other ideas.
It isn't often a Sean Miller team finds itself at a disadvantage athletically, but there was no question the Ducks were the quicker, more aggressive team. Oregon took control in the final six minutes by forcing turnovers, putting on a show in transition and coming away with an 83-75 win that left the Wildcats apologizing to fans and former players.
Arizona might be the Pac-12's preeminent program and a burgeoning destination for blue chip talent, but it couldn't hang with the roster Oregon cobbled together during a period when many fans have a reason to feel conflicted about the program. You don't have to flip the calendar too far back to find a time when this type of win and this type of season would have been unthinkable for the Ducks.
It was only 18 months ago that Oregon basketball found itself on the precipice of crisis. A horrific, gut-wrenching sexual assault scandal rocked the program, leading to the dismissal of three players and deserved speculation over whether head coach Dana Altman should lose his job. Altman was retained, but left with only four scholarship players heading into the next season -- and immediately saw his two most prized recruits denied eligibility by the NCAA.
Fortunately for Oregon, it still had Joe Young. Young was brilliant in his senior season, winning Pac-12 Player of the Year and powering an impressive run in the second half of the season to get the Ducks to the NCAA Tournament. But with Young off to the NBA, Oregon again had to figure out how to rebuild its roster on the fly to contend in a revitalized Pac-12.
So far, the Ducks are doing it better than anyone could have imagined. Oregon is leading conference at 18-4, pushing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and raising its efficiency on both ends of the floor. Without Young's supernova scoring capabilities, Oregon is sharing the ball, making big plays defensively and establishing itself as the most consistent team in a conference that might get more NCAA Tournament bids than anyone else.
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This roster is full of shortcuts and second chances, yet it's one that can compete physically with just about anyone. Altman has a tight seven- or eight-man rotation that includes three JUCO transfers, one blue chip freshman and three sophomores outperforming their recruiting rankings. The result is a team that feels like it has a chip on its shoulder and plays a relentless brand of ball both offensively and defensively.
Dillon Brooks was a fringe top 100 recruit entering the program a year ago, but the Canadian wing is the team's leading scorer in his sophomore season and a legitimate candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year. He isn't a perfect prospect by any means: he has impossibly short arms, struggles to shoot from the perimeter and can be careless with the ball. But he also has a motor that doesn't quit and when he puts his head down to get to the rim, good things tend to happen. He's averaging 16.6 points per game this year on 47.8 percent shooting and is a big reason why Oregon is No. 9 in offensive efficiency.
Brooks is complemented by a strong frontcourt that rotates four capable players with different skill sets. Senior Elgin Cook is an undersized bulldog who fills in the cracks everywhere while being crafty enough around the basket to average over 13 points per game. Sophomore Jordan Bell is the defensive anchor, a 6'8 center who can block shots and control the glass. Dwayne Benjamin might be best known as the player Bill Walton calls "Snoop Dogg," but he's turned into a floor stretching power forward and one of the few reliable shooters on this team.
Then there's Chris Boucher, a skinny 6'11 JUCO transfer who is developing into the type of player Kevin Durant might call a unicorn.
Boucher came to Oregon this season with one of the wildest backstories in college basketball. He was constantly on the move as a child growing up among crime and poverty in Montreal and didn't start playing the game until he was 19 years old. He suddenly blossomed into the JUCO Player of the Year and is displaying an incredible mix of high-level skills in his first season at Oregon. Boucher is an elite shot blocker (No. 3 in the country in block rate, per KenPom) who can get hot from three-point range and has enough skill to put the ball on the floor and finish over the top of a defense:
Boucher went off for 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in Oregon's last game, a win over Arizona State. Lost in that terrific effort might be the steady play of an odd couple pairing in the backcourt that's lifted the Ducks without graduate transfer Dylan Ennis, who was lost for the year with a foot injury after being expected to hold down a guard spot all season.
Iowa State's Monte Morris gets all the hype for his prodigious care of the ball, but Casey Benson is the man who entered last week leading the country in assist to turnover ratio. He has 72 assists to just 13 turnovers this year, giving the Ducks the solid caretaker they need to direct the offense. Benson is paired with freshman Tyler Dorsey, the top-40 recruit who decommitted from Arizona to give Oregon an athletic 6'4 combo guard who plays hard, hits 43 percent of his threes and has a knack for getting to the foul line.
The Ducks don't take or make a lot of threes. They can struggle on the glass due to a lack of height or strength depending on which pairing Altman is rolling with. The backcourt in particular is still awfully thin and desperately misses the depth Ennis would provide. Oregon isn't perfect, but that just means they're like everyone else this season.
The ugliness of the recent scandal still lingers for Altman, but there's no denying the players on this team are talented, competitive and fun to watch. It's a team that feels like it's taking Eugene by surprise, let alone the rest of the Pac-12. During a wide open season that lacks dominant teams, the Ducks aren't just an upstart, they look like a legitimate contender.