Oregon Ducks

Oregon Ducks

The mesmerizing site of Oregon junior guard Sabrina Ionescu dropping threes at will Sunday afternoon against Mississippi State in the Elite Eight was only surpassed by the euphoric celebration that followed the Ducks' hard-fought 88-84 win that sent the program to its first Final Four. 

A few days prior to the women's historical victory, the Oregon men's team narrowly lost 53-49 to No. 1 seed Virginia in the Sweet 16. That came nearly a week after UO clobbered the field in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., two years after the program reached the Final Four and three years after a run to the Elite Eight.

All of this recent success on the hardwood, which includes the women's run to the Elite Eight the last two seasons, begs the question: Is Oregon becoming a basketball school?

During the same four-season time frame that includes Oregon's greatest combined achievements in both men's and women's basketball, the football program fell on hard times. The Ducks are on their third coach since 2016, have not sniffed a conference title and have just one bowl victory, which came in a very forgettable 7-6 win over Michigan State last December in the Redbox Bowl.

 

Since reaching the college football national title game following the 2014 season, Oregon fired a legacy football staff in 2016 after going 4-8, ended up with their seventh choice as head coach in Willie Taggart, who ultimately left UO after one season for Florida State and now UO has relatively unproven Mario Cristobal at the helm. Over on the basketball side: men's coach Dana Altman and women's coach Kelly Graves are proven commodities with long track records of success. Cristobal has a career record of 36-53. Compare that to Graves (496-211 at UO, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's) and Altman (645-339 at UO, Creighton, Kansas State and Marshall).

The two most prominent athletes between basketball and football over the past three years are Dillon Brooks, the best player on the men's Final Four team, and current women's superstar, Ionescu, who will lead the Ducks (33-4) against Baylor (35-1) at 4 p.m., Friday in Tampa, Fla. 

Don't bring up quarterback Justin Herbert. Yes, he will be a first-round pick in the NFL next year. Yes, football is a bigger deal than basketball in this country. But Herbert has yet to achieve the level of greatness both Brooks and Ionescu enjoyed at Oregon. And Sabrina isn't done. 

Yes, I'm abandoning style protocol and referring to her by her first name. Sabrina's performance on Sunday - 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds - further enhanced her legendary status to the point where she is worthy of the single-name mention. Sabrina. That's it. Nothing else is needed. Just like with Marcus, LaMichael and Joey in the Oregon football world. 

Those three men led the Ducks to their greatest seasons ever. Quarterback Joey Harrington led UO to the 2002 Fiesta Bowl win and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Running back LaMichael James led the Ducks to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game and placed third in the Heisman balloting. Quarterback Marcus Mariota guided UO to the 2015 national championship game and received Oregon's first Heisman Trophy. Those three belong on the Mt. Rushmore of Oregon football  with the fourth representative open for debate.  

But that 2014 season with Marcus leading the way seems like eons ago. The landscape of the Pac-12 and college football have so dramatically changed that the once fabled "blur offense" became just another fast-paced scheme and the run of dizzying success UO enjoyed from 2007 through 2014 came to a screeching halt. 

Cristobal is attempting to resuscitate that success and got off to a solid start last season by going 9-4, albeit with a very weak schedule. A highly-rated recruiting class bodes well for the Ducks' future on the gridiron but there are certainly no guarantees that the Ducks will once again taste national-level success in the near future. 
 

Cristobal can't ultimately be judged until after his fourth season when he has had three years to assemble talent recruited under his guidance. 

Meanwhile, the men's and women's basketball programs already appear to be set up for long-term success. Altman has proven that he can reshape and develop rosters on the fly as good as almost anyone in the country. Graves has tapped into the international recruiting scene to create a strong pipeline of elite talent flowing into Eugene. 

It wasn't long ago that the basketball programs were mere diversions to pass the time until the summer recreation months that led to what mattered most - football. Not anymore. 

The women's basketball team will be strong again next season. Altman has another great recruiting class heading in to join a strong group of returners.

Football? Well, Herbert is back for his senior season. So there is hope there for great success. We shall see. 

So maybe the question isn't if Oregon is becoming a basketball school, but rather has it already done so?