Before last week's Pac-12 Tournament I gave the Oregon Ducks about a 25 percent chance to reach the Final Four and a 15 percent chance to claim the national title. Then senior forward Chris Boucher went down and out with a knee injury during the semifinals.
Gone went the availability of the 6-foot-10 shot blocking, rebounding, stretch-four three-point shooting and power dunking beast who is undoubtedly the team's second best all-around player next to junior forward Dillon Brooks.
It's a devastating blow for the Ducks, a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional who begins tournament play at 11 a.m., Friday against No. 14 Iona in Sacramento, Calif. For me the loss of Boucher reduces Oregon's chances of making a deep run into the tournament to about five percent to the Final Four and a one percent chance for the Ducks to claim their first national title since 1939. Las Vegas oddsmakers dropped the Ducks' odds of winning the national title from 12-1 before the Pac-12 Tournament to 25-1. Conference rivals Arizona and UCLA both sit at 12-1. Why the shift for UO? It's all about the absence of Boucher.
It remains possible that the Ducks could get red-hot and rattle of six wins to take it all. Lesser teams have done so in the past. But for that to happen, which would likely include having to take down No. 2 seed Louisville and No. 1 seed Kansas, Oregon would need at least five specific occurrences to take place. And, it simply just doesn't appear to be plausible to expect all five to occur on six consecutive nights.
Here they are:
1. Kavell Bigby-Williams must consistently deliver: The 6-10 junior transfer gave the Ducks three points, six rebounds and two blocked shots during 14 minutes of action in UO's 83-80 loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game. If he shows up like that six more times, UO could be in business. However, here is the rub: If he were capable of delivering such solid performances in the pressure of a NCAA Tournament then why wasn't he seeing more consistent playing time during the regular season? UO coach Dana Altman didn't lean on him for more than 9.7 minutes per game for a reason. Altman doesn't fully trust him. Bigby-Williams rarely received 10 or more minutes in games that weren't blowouts. During a 75-73 win at Stanford on Feb. 25, he played 10 minutes but picked up three fouls in that time. He had three fouls and two turnovers in 12 minutes of action during a 79-61 win at home over Utah on Feb. 16. Such performances are what led Altman to play Bigby-Williams for just nine minutes over the first two conference tournament games. But to his credit, he did play well against the Wildcats. But can he do that again, and again, and again? If so, UO would at the very least have an adequate big man off the bench to help grab rebounds and defend bigs. But if he starts turning over the ball and getting into foul trouble, he becomes a liability that UO has no real replacement for. We can't completely forget about the 6-10 Roman Sorkin. But, again, we're talking about a guy Altman has not displayed much trust in. Sorkin has played just 8.1 minutes per game on the season, has never received more than 10 minutes in a close game and didn't play at all in the final two games of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Ducks desperately need Bigby-Williams to round into top form on a nightly basis right now.
2. Great Tyler Dorsey must maintain a consistent presence: When this guy is hot, Oregon is tough to beat. When he is bad, the Ducks have survived in the past only because others picked him up. Not having Boucher around to be that consistent force next to Brooks means Dorsey cannot play poorly in any game after the second round if UO is going to advance. In 14 games this season, Dorsey made just three field goals or fewer while shooting 22.7 percent (23 of 101). In six of those games he made just one or zero baskets. That's 14 of the team's 34 games, or 41 percent of the time, in which Dorsey's game simply vanished. If past is prologue, then it stands to reason that if Oregon played six NCAA Tournament games Dorsey would have two or three such outings. Now, Dorsey was brilliant in the Pac-12 Tournament. He made 22 of 42 shots (9 of 19 from three) while averaging 22.3 points per game. Oregon needs that Dorsey to show up nightly because the Ducks won't have the depth to pick him up when he struggles without Boucher around. When Dorsey struggled early during the Pac-12 title game, Oregon fell behind by 14 with Brooks carrying the load. Once Dorsey got rolling and put up 21 in the second half, the Ducks came back and almost stole the title. He needs to do that every night during the NCAA Tournament. The night he doesn't against a good team, UO is done.
3. Payton Pritchard must get rolling again: The freshman out of West Linn went from looking like a legitimate contributor to disappearing over the past four games. In the stretch he made five of 17 shots for 3.9 points per game. In the final two Pac-12 Tournament games, Pritchard made just one of six shots for four points with a weak five assists over 54 minutes. That can't continue. Pritchard must be a consistent threat to either score or be a deft distributor. When he plays well, he takes pressure off of senior guard Dylan Ennis, who has his own battles with inconsistent play, and makes it less of a necessity for UO to lean on junior backup guard Casey Benson, who can't be relied upon to provide consistent offense. To Pritchard's credit, he committed just one turnover during the team's three Pac-12 Tournament games, but that's in part because he played it safe most of the time and merely acted as a conduit to push the ball to someone else who might take a chance at making a play. Pritchard is better than that. He has hit clutch shots this season. He has come up big in big games (15 points, nine assists against UCLA at home on Dec. 28). He has had double-digit assists. He can play at a high level. That Pritchard must return in order for the Ducks to make a deep run.
4. Jordan Bell must avoid foul trouble: Oregon's three-guard lineup with Brooks playing power forward only works because of Bell's ability to patrol the middle on defense as a fearless rebounder and shot blocker. In the past, if he faced some foul trouble (he rarely does), UO could turn to Boucher. Not anymore. Bell committed just three fouls over 102 minutes played during the Pac-12 Tournament while blocking eight shots. That's phenomenal. He has to remain on the floor and give the Ducks that type of production against elite opponents in order for UO to advance. If he is limited by foul trouble and the Ducks are forced to turn to Bigby-Williams and Sorkin for long stretches, the Ducks could be in huge trouble.
5. Brooks must carry this team like a player of the year should: He can't be sloppy. He must play intelligently. He has to be calculated with his aggression. But in order for UO to advance far in this tournament it will need Brooks to be even more special than he was during the regular season. No hiccups. If the Pac-12 player of the year has a game in the NCAA Tournament like he did against California during the Pac-12 semifinals when foul trouble limited him to 21 minutes and he scored just 10 points on 3 of 12 shooting, UO's season ends that day. He is going to have to make big shots in clutch moments to stop opposing runs and to bail out the rest of the team when they struggle. He might also need to hit a buzzer-beater, or two, along the way. In the Cal game, Boucher came off the bench for 10 points in 24 minutes. The rest of the bench, Bigby-Williams and Benson, offered five points in 30 combined minutes. Brooks can't have bad nights, especially beyond the first two rounds.
If all five of the above happen, the Ducks will make it to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., and give anyone there a run for their money. If not, UO will fall to advance further than it did last season when the Ducks' run ended in the Elite Eight.