GLENDALE, Ariz. — For long stretches during the regular season, Oregon looked like a team that could not only reach the Final Four, but win it all. The Ducks were filled with confidence, came at opponents in relentless waves and rarely seemed fazed by anything.
Then came the injury to Chris Boucher, and a blown knee seemed to change everything — including, at least for a while, the Ducks’ perception of themselves. But in the Elite Eight against Kansas — playing as true a road game as there ever is in the NCAA tournament — they suddenly played like that team from before.
Oregon is led by Dillon Brooks, a swaggering junior forward (16.3 points, 41 percent three-pointers) who occupies the four position but is essentially a guard. He plays with edge — and sometimes he plays over the edge — and it fueled his run to Pac-12 player of the year and Oregon’s to this point. But in the postseason, Brooks has been augmented by a surge from sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey. His 27-point performance against Kansas was his seventh consecutive game with at least 20 points, and it included several three-pointers in critical moments.
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Although Boucher was the Ducks’ third-leading scorer and a potent perimeter threat who stretched opponents’ defenses, the biggest loss was defensive. The 7-footer was one of the nation’s best shot-blockers. Oregon averages 6.3 blocks per game (No. 2 nationally), but had only seven in the first three games of the NCAA tournament.
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But against Kansas, junior forward Jordan Bell blocked eight shots, altered countless others, and at times it was clear the Jayhawks turned down driving lanes because of his threatening potential. Limited to contested jump shots, the Jayhawks shot just 35 percent. Add 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Bell provided interior strength to go with those talented perimeter players.
“It’s the best I’ve ever seen him play,” Ducks coach Dana Altman said. “That was phenomenal. I haven’t seen anything like it.”
But we had seen something like what Oregon did against Kansas. It was less anomaly than a return to the Ducks’ best performances of the season. If they can maintain a reasonable facsimile, they’ll have a great chance to cut down the nets Monday night, their second national title — and first since 1939, when they won the NCAA’s very first basketball championship.