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Ocker: Oregon men's basketball provides a perfect senior year

Watching Olu Ashaolu fly over the top of a hapless Utah defender and slam the ball home Saturday, I had a few realizations. The first one was simple: DAMN. The second one was not much harder to process: This is the most fun, talented Oregon team I’ve seen in my four years here. The third one was complex: The growth of Oregon’s basketball program has been astronomical during this period, and being able to watch it closely over the past four years has been one of the most formative parts of my college experience.

As an ardent follower of Oregon men’s basketball during my four years at the University, I’ve been through some pretty hard times. I remember many an ill-advised Tajuan Porter jump shot, a 2-16 conference record and a gaggle of disappointing recruits from my freshman year. Things got so desperate that the students stormed McArthur Court after defeating Stanford — to end a season-long Pac-10 losing streak that lasted into the end of February. As a child of the Luke Jackson/Luke Ridnour/Freddy Jones Elite Eight era, I came to Eugene with an emotional attachment to the program, and despite seeing it in shambles, I still enjoyed myself. @@[email protected]@

Though somewhat better, my sophomore year was just as tumultuous for the Ducks. The recruits continued to disappoint, by and large, and Oregon limped to another bottom-of-the-barrel season, leading to Ernie Kent’s early departure as head coach. Having begun to take up the cause of objectivity — it’s an ongoing fight — I was less attached to the program, but it still hurt to watch the coach who had led the team to two Elite Eight appearances get shoved out the door despite rapid improvement in what turned out to be his final season. @@[email protected]@

When Oregon hired Dana Altman from Creighton, the culture of the program immediately changed. Despite being a team that came into almost every game wildly overmatched physically, the Ducks managed to will themselves to a College Basketball Invitational victory, with a tearful Joevan Catron winning MVP honors in his redshirt senior season. The last remaining piece of Oregon’s second Elite Eight team had gone, and he had gone out on top, and I was now going to be forced to focus solely on the present, on what Oregon was at the start of the season. @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@

Despite last year ending in Oregon’s first winning record in my time here, I honestly expected it to be the high point for the program. I never predicted the impact that transfers Devoe Joseph and Ashaolu would have, or the growth that longtime Ducks E.J. Singler or Garrett Sim would undergo, and the team’s early-season struggles were enough to scare me into thinking Oregon was doomed for another year of mediocrity — or was poised to again plunge into the depths of ineptitude.

Instead, I found myself closely following a team that played its way into the NCAA Tournament conversation despite a weak Pac-12 Conference. The team’s growth has resonated with me, and I feel like as the program has grown on the court, at the same time I’ve grown up as a person, and I have a sense of attachment with this year’s flock of Ducks that I’ve never had before.

As Ashaolu said in Saturday’s postgame ceremonies at Matthew Knight Arena, “In my whole years of college, I can say that this is my favorite.”

I agree. I can’t wait to see how it ends.

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Kenny Ocker

Kenny Ocker