The reigning Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon Ducks are off to a hot start in 2019, showing off why this team is the real deal, capable of a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Less than a month away from Pac-12 Conference play, the No. 8 Ducks are the highest Pac-12 team in the Associated Press poll after their best win of the season at then-No. 5 Michigan.
Is this the season Oregon takes the crown? There is a lot of games to be played but here are three reasons that make this team special.
1. Oregon is creating a habit of winning tough games on the road
The Ducks (8-2) made history on Saturday. Fifth-ranked Michigan (8-3) was the highest ranked non-conference opponent that Oregon has ever defeated during the regular season.
The Wolverines are the third top-15 team that the Ducks have defeated this season. Oregon also holds wins against No. 13 Memphis and No. 13 Seton Hall. Impressively, all three victories have been away from home, which is the most in the nation.
The Ducks lead the nation in games against top-15 opponents (five). The two games they lost were decided by a combined five points: The Ducks lost by one point in overtime to Gonzaga and four points to North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
In short, Oregon is playing against the best and competing until the very end. That’s a good habit and experience to draw on when March rolls around.
2. Oregon can lean on Pritchard’s leadership
In the Ducks’ overtime victory against Michigan, point guard Payton Pritchard took over in the final 10 minutes, scoring 15 of UO’s final 17 points to secure the win. His presence dominated offensively and defensively, recording three steals and three rebounds.
Pritchard earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for his efforts. Surprisingly, his first Pac-12 Player of the Week honor. The West Linn, Ore. native is a Wooden Award, Naismith and Robertson Trophies and Cousy Award nominee.
His superman-like performance displayed why the Ducks can rely on the senior. Pritchard’s experience is unmatched, he has started 118 consecutive games, a streak that leads the NCAA.
Pritchard’s grit is palpable in his final season as a Duck, which bodes well for a team with many fresh faces.
3. Bolstering the frontcourt
The Ducks beat Michigan without their leading rebounder, senior forward Shakur Juiston. Before suffering a lower leg injury against North Carolina last month, the 6-foot-7 graduate transfer averaged 8.8 points, a team-high 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists through the first eight games. Oregon Coach Dana Altman has not offered a timetable for his return.
The return of Juiston’s physical presence will make a major impact, down the road.
Five-star center N’Faly Dante just became eligible and has not made his debut yet. Dante has three weeks to practice with the team and get brought up to speed before Pac-12 play begins at Colorado on Jan. 2.
The 6-foot-11 center’s rebounding and ability to protect the rim will add another weapon to Oregon’s roster.
With Juiston and Dante, Oregon will have a reliable 10-man rotation with contributors throughout. That depth will be crucial as the season and post-season progress.
Next up: Oregon has two home games this week, against Montana (Wed, 8 p.m. PT) and Texas Southern (Sat, 7:30 p.m. PT).