There were moments in Oregon’s dismantling of Utah this past Saturday that admittedly gave me chills as I sat at my computer on press row.
The first came around the six-minute mark in the second half, when senior Garrett Sim left the game to a deafening standing ovation. He gave Dana Altman and his staff hugs, then moved his way down the bench all the way to the last manager on the final seat.
I watched from a distance and couldn’t help but feel happy for the guy. Here’s a 21-year-old kid who stuck with a program that saw exponentially more lows than highs during his four-year career. Enduring a coaching change, drastic player defections from year to year and a withering fan base were probably tougher than most of us can imagine.
Not to take away from the rest of the seniors, each of whom has played a key role at some point in their respective careers, but Sim was here from the beginning. The beginning for me, anyway, back in the late fall of 2008. I watched less than diligently as a fan that year before hopping on the beat as a reporter the following season.
For the better part of the next two years, Oregon looked downright awful at times. The pieces were there, sure, but they never came together to form anything that resembled a team.
And then this year happened.
Thinking back to December and even early January, Dana Altman would constantly remind reporters he wasn’t happy with the progress his team was making. He thought a group with four juniors and five seniors would have been farther along after a month’s worth of games.
He was right.
The Ducks weren’t playing to their full potential, even if it was difficult to see just where that potential stopped and wishful thinking began. Yet, the weeks rolled on and Oregon started playing some pretty damn good basketball. It got to the point where a win at Cal would have put them in the driver’s seat for the outright conference title. Instead they suffered a setback, though it was nothing they couldn’t overcome.
As you know by now, they’ve secured the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament this week and will play the winner of today’s matchup between Colorado and Utah on Thursday night. If Colorado pulls out a win, it will have been exactly one week since the two teams last met — a nine-point victory for the Ducks in Eugene. @@http://www.pac-12.org/SPORTS/BasketballM/Standings.aspx@@
But I’m not here to make predictions or anything of that nature. If you’ve been paying attention to what this Oregon team has done over the last few weeks of the season you already know what’s at stake. Most pundits believe the Ducks need to win at least two games in the Pac-12 tournament to have a shot at an at-large bid. Frankly, I don’t like their chances if they win just one, and neither should you.
Here’s where things get a little more interesting.
Should the Ducks beat Colorado (sorry, Utah) in the second round, Oregon is pretty much guaranteed another date with California for a shot to play in the championship game.
In four years of playing Cal — eight games total — Sim has never beaten the Golden Bears. The personal rivalry between Sim and Cal’s Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez is mostly media rabble, but you know Sim would love nothing more than to take down Cal in his last opportunity. @@I checked, Cal did win all 8 [email protected]@
As great as this season has been, any of the Oregon players will tell you it’s far from finished. And if you ask me, there’s no team I’d rather go through to reach the championship than Cal. For the past few years they’ve resembled everything the Ducks wanted to be but couldn’t quite grasp.
The time for the Ducks to make that final step is now, and I believe they’re ready for the challenge.