Quietly, Dana Altman has gone about turning Oregon into one of the West’s most consistent programs. The Ducks had been knocking on the door of national prominence for a couple years before kicking it in by winning the Pac-12 and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last March.
Considered a top-five team and possible national title contender for 2016-17, the Ducks can’t fly under the radar anymore. They’ll be dealing with a level of attention and pressure never before shouldered by the program.
All Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Dana Altman
2015-16 RECORD (PAC-12): 31–7 (14–4)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Oklahoma 80–68 in the Elite Eight
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in Pac-12
F Dwayne Benjamin (7.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
F Elgin Cook (14.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Oregon made the jump from good to great due in large part to the matchup nightmare presented by former NJCAA Player of the Year Chris Boucher. At 6'10" and 190 pounds, Boucher isn’t backing anyone down in the low post. But he blocked a school-record 110 shots as a junior and added 39 3-pointers to become the first Pac-12 player ever with at least 100 blocks and 35 3s in the same season. Boucher’s shot-blocking presence allows the rest of the defense to take more risks, and his 3-point shooting opens up the lane at the other end for Oregon’s slashing wings.
The muscle in the post is provided by Jordan Bell, who made 57.6 percent of his field goal attempts as a sophomore. He’s also a shot-blocking threat, having set the UO record as a freshman that Boucher broke last season.
And the Ducks also signed junior college transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams, yet another athletic, shot-blocking forward. Along with blocking more than five shots per game last season, Bigby-Williams averaged better than 13 rebounds per game, an area where Altman hopes he can impact the Ducks.
“When we weren’t successful, rebounding always seemed to be a problem for us,” Altman says. “I think Kavell can help us there.”
Indeed, Oregon was outrebounded last season in just eight of its 31 wins, but in five of its seven losses.
Junior Roman Sorkin and freshman M.J. Cage — son of former NBA forward Michael Cage — also will be in the mix, though minutes could be hard to come by behind the other three.
What kept the Ducks viable as a preseason national championship contender were the decisions by wings Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey to pull out of the NBA Draft pool and return to school. They’re two of the most talented perimeter scorers in the Pac-12 after combining for more than 30 points per game last season.
Something of a hothead as a freshman, Brooks matured into a leader as a sophomore and demonstrated a selflessness that was key to Oregon’s fortunes. Talented enough to average 20 points per game — due to his ability to get to the basket complemented by decent 3-point shooting — Brooks ended up leading the Ducks in assists as well as scoring, and was second in rebounds.
Dorsey was a 40.6 percent 3-point shooter to lead the Ducks as a freshman, and he is also a fearless driver to the rim. He can become an even tougher matchup by improving his ball handling.
At the point, Oregon returns a wealth of talent. Casey Benson led the country last season in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.88-to-1). But he started only because of a foot injury that sidelined Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis for all but two games. Ennis was Oregon’s best player in offseason workouts prior to last season, and he successfully petitioned the NCAA for a waiver to return in 2016-17. Then there’s in-state recruit Payton Pritchard, who some believe will win the starting job at some point as a freshman.
Altman has been a master at getting buy-in from players, and the rotation among the point guards will require a delicate touch.
Kavell Bigby-Williams was the NJCAA College Player of the Year, having averaged 16.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 blocks last season. He’ll rotate with Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher in the low block. Payton Pritchard was the top recruit from the state of Oregon and figures to challenge for minutes at the point. Keith Smith and M.J. Cage provide athleticism and depth at forward.
In the two years prior to last season’s Elite Eight run, Oregon saw its season end a game short of the Sweet Sixteen. That disappointment fueled the Ducks last postseason, and after losing to Oklahoma a game short of the Final Four, players said they would have motivation aplenty for this season, too. “We have some great players returning,” Bell said after the loss. “We set the bar this year, and hopefully next year we can exceed it.”
The challenge will be significantly different this time around, though. Oregon isn’t going to sneak up on anybody. How the Ducks handle favorite status will be the biggest key to their 2016-17 fortunes.