It’s hard to fathom that two years ago Oregon was playing in the Final Four — and save for a Jordan Bell breakdown — was a mere rebound away from playing in the national championship.
Now two years later and the Ducks are looking at climbing out of the Pac-12 cellar one-third of the way into its conference season.
It’s understandable that the 2016 squad and this current Oregon team shouldn’t expect the same results — particularly based on roster experience. But the biggest discrepancy between the two squads comes down to execution at the end of games — where one team thrived on the way to postseason glory, the other has faulted with no postseason in sight.
When the going gets tough, this Oregon team can’t close. The Ducks don’t have a go-to scorer when a bucket is needed.
Two years ago, it was known that Dillon Brooks was the guy who got the ball at the end of the game — and if not him, Tyler Dorsey was the next option.
The current team looks lost in the final minutes of close games, with nobody willing to play within the system for the big shot.
Facing hated-rival Washington on Thursday night, Oregon found itself tied with 19.3 seconds remaining. Playing for the last shot, it was assumed at worst the Ducks would go to overtime — but a bucket would’ve resulted in the biggest home win in the past two years, especially against the top team in the Pac-12.
Neither scenario happened.
The final play was drawn up for Payton Pritchard (nine points) to come off a screen set by Louis King (team-high 19 points) and attack the basket. If he was cut off, he was supposed to kick out to King for the three-pointer.
“I told them, ‘Fellas, we’ve got another timeout if you need it,' — we just can’t turn it over. If we go to overtime, we got to overtime, but we’re going to take the last shot," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said postgame. “And we turned it over.”
Instead of executing the play called by Altman, Pritchard had other ideas — choosing not to use the screen set by King and do it himself. He turned the ball over, and then inexplicably fouled a Washington player attempting a running 40-footer with 1.6 seconds left. That left the Ducks on the losing end of an eventual 61-56 defeat to the Huskies.
“It is a gut-wrencher and one we’re just going to have to fight through,” Altman said of the loss. “I watched the play from a lot of different angles... it was just a tough call.”
While this could loss could be viewed as a singular breakdown, the larger theme of “late game collapses” has emerged for the young Ducks team.
Exactly two weeks ago, Oregon suffered a devastating home loss to UCLA. Leading by nine with under a minute left, the Ducks completely fell apart, eventually being defeated by the Bruins in overtime. Oregon gave up three three-pointers and fouled a three-point shooter in the final minute — turned the ball over once, committed three fouls and gave up two offensive rebounds.
The same thing happened in Oregon’s Pac-12 opener against Oregon State. The Ducks led 72-71 with 1:10 remaining before the Beavers ended the game on a 6-0 run for the win — as Oregon committed three fouls and went 0-for-3 from the field in the final minute.
On the road against Arizona State last weekend, Oregon found itself leading 54-50 with 8:37 remaining before giving up a 19-0 run in the loss. The Ducks went 0-for-7, committing two fouls and turning the ball over twice during the run.
Even with the struggles and demoralizing outlook, the season is not over yet, not by a longshot.
The Ducks entered Pac-12 play knowing they probably need to win the conference tournament in Las Vegas to earn for any chance of getting into the NCAA tournament.
The goal for the Ducks now is to enter Las Vegas with a go-to scorer, someone who wants the ball and executes with the game on the line. Whether that be King, Pritchard, senior Paul White or sophomore Victor Bailey Jr., a leader must emerge. If not, the Ducks will once again find itself entering the offseason with more questions than answers.