The Oregon basketball team won't sink to the bottom of the Pac-12 standings next season. Not even after losing seven of their best nine players from this year's Final Four team. UO coach Dana Altman is too good of a strategist and leader for that to happen, and he will have some promising, but young talent to work with.
But the Ducks are virtually assured of taking a major step backward from what was a two-year run of excellence the program hadn't experienced in the modern era. Any chance of replicating the Final Four run from last season or the march to the Elite Eight the season before went out of the door with the departures of junior forwards, Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks, and sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, all of whom decided to venture into NBA waters.
Few programs in the nation could recover from losing that much talent and still remain a national title contender. Then factor in the losses of senior forward Chris Boucher and senior guard Dylan Ennis, plus junior guard Casey Benson, who elected to transfer, and the likely loss of junior big man Kavell Bigby-Williams, who has requested and received the freedom to seek a new program for his services.
Add all of that up and you have a program in major flux.
“It’s been a crazy two weeks,” Altman said today during a press conference at Matthew Knight Arena. “But those guys, I really feel good for all of them...I sure hope it works out for all of them."
But will all of this work out for Oregon? Probably. In due time. Providing Altman can, or has, acquired pieces that will be around long enough for him to mold into another wrecking machine.
Recruiting hasn't and shouldn't be a problem.
“You go to a Final Four and everybody at least picks up the phone,” Altman said.
Altman said the departure of Brooks and Dorsey was expected. Both tested entered the NBA Draft process following the 2015-16 season before each elected to return to UO. That they at least had one door out of the door last season, Altman said, made it clear that the duo would likely depart this spring.
“It was pretty obvious that if they had a nice year they were going to leave,” Altman said.
Bell's future remained unclear to Altman until the shot-blocking menace put forth several dominant performances during the postseason, thus raising his stock on some online mock drafts from middle of the second round to the latter part of the first.
“You play that well for so many games, late, I can’t blame him [for leaving],” Altman said.
Bigby-Williams didn't play much in his first season at UO, while Benson, Altman said, didn't easily accept losing his starting job to freshman point guard Payton Pritchard.
Speaking of Pritchard, he will now take over as the leader of a team that will experience a heavy youth movement.
“We’re going to be younger next year than we’ve been in awhile, which is kind of exciting from a coaching standpoint,” Altman said.
So what will the team look like next season? Not too bad, providing some unproven talent blossoms as both players and leaders, something last season's team did not lack.
"Somebody will establish himself [as a leader]," Altman said. "It might take awhile. I think the leadership qualities come out of necessity, sometimes.”
Altman pointed to the winning past of his recruits. He said he tries to sign players that won in high school. Few high school basketball players have ever won as much as Pritchard, who led West Linn High School to four 6A state titles.
Pritchard will be the lone regular returning player next season and will have a chance to put his stamp on the program. He also could receive some help from a graduate transfer, or two. Altman has been the master of finding veteran players from across the country and getting great success out of them for one or two years.
Mike Moser, Jason Calliste, Joseph Young and Dylan Ennis were all fabulous for the Ducks.
“We have done very well with grad transfers,” Altman said.
Oregon is reportedly in the running for New Mexico guard Elijah Brown, who averaged 18.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game last season. He would certainly give the Ducks a proven collegiate scorer to work with, something the roster lacks at the moment.
Here is a look at what all the Ducks could look like next season:
Guards: Pritchard, a fierce scorer while dominating Oregon high school basketball at West Linn, will now have much more freedom on offense. Starting in the backcourt with him could be 6-foot-6 freshman Troy Brown, a five-star recruit out of Las Vegas, Nev., who is rated as the No. 12 player in the nation and projected by some to be an NBA first-round pick next spring. Four-star recruit Victor Bailey (Round Rock, Texas) could also be in the mix as a freshman. That's a lot of youth in the backcourt.
The addition of Elijah Brown would balance out this group with a veteran presence who can fill it up.
Forwards: Sophomore Keith Smith, a four-star recruit last year, played a bit here and there during last season and will be the front-runner to start next season. The Ducks will also need production from 6-10 M.J. Cage, another four-star recruit from last year, and transfer Paul White from Georgetown.
White is a major wild card. Rivals.com ranked White as the 50th best player in the nation in 2014. The 6-foot-9 White played a lot as a freshman with the Hoyas, averaging 5.0 points per game, but missed most of the following season after undergoing abdominal surgery. He sat out last season and will be a junior next fall.
Cage redshirted due to injury but is expected to provide size in side next season.
“Both will give us some minutes next year,” Altman said of Cage and White.
Small forward recruit, Abu Kigab (Napa, Calif.) could also see time in a thin frontcourt.
Senior Roman Sorkin will be the most experienced big man back and at the very least will provide veteran depth.
On Monday, the Ducks received a commitment from three-star forward Kenny Wooten, adding to their 2017 recruiting haul.
The Ducks are reportedly still in the mix to land 6-10, five-star center Brandon McCoy, rated as the No. 11 player in the nation.
Should the Ducks land McCoy, the frontcourt would take on a whole new look, but still would be too young to be considered one that would push the Ducks deep into the NCAA Tournament.
All told, Oregon next season will have at least six players who were four-star recruits and one five-star recruit in Brown. That's not a bad collection of talent for Altman to mold. But it will be a group of freshmen and sophomores, other than White.
It's the type of group that Altman could have ready for greatness by 2020, providing nearly everyone sticks around for more than a year.
That said, Altman isn't done recruiting. He could land another freshman, such as McCoy, and get Brown to transfer in along with another strong veteran.
“We’ve got a lot more playing time to sell,” Altman said.
Sad, true. Altman also can sell the program's recent successes and reason to believe the future could be just as bright.