As Oregon put the final touches on a win over Washington State to complete a two-game sweep at home Saturday, the mood was unmistakable. Players high-fived. Coaches smiled and shook hands. In the end, Oregon’s impressive victories over the Cougars and Washington Huskies felt like, well, business as usual. @@[email protected]@

The thing is, the victories were anything but routine. In fact, the homestand put Oregon (18-7, 9-4 Pac-12 Conference) in contention for a conference title for the first time since Aaron Brooks roamed campus. @@

With a second-year head coach and a solid group of returning players, the Ducks surely had expectations of progression in 2012. But why, exactly, has it taken until this deep into conference play for the Ducks to finally turn the corner?

The answer can be summed up in one word: synergy. It’s not that the team has begun to mesh as a holistic unit from top to bottom. Rather, its three most experienced weapons — Garrett Sim, E.J. Singler and Devoe Joseph — have developed a rapport that is quickly propelling Oregon into the discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Put simply, Sim, Singler and Joseph are the team’s most talented players. But as we all know, talent doesn’t necessarily produce positive results in basketball. Success requires rhythm, trust, understanding and sacrifice. With the Ducks’ lacking a go-to guy on offense like they had last season (Joevan Catron), this trio was tasked with learning how to play with each other, and fast. To make things a little more interesting, Joseph — as a result of transferring from Minnesota through a loophole in NCAA regulations — would be unable to join the team until Dec. 10, the seventh game of the season. @@[email protected]@

So far, so good. Joseph has made a relatively seamless transition, averaging 15.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 45 percent from three-point range in his first 19 games with the program. His play has been a huge help, but wasn’t largely unexpected. @@

Singler, Oregon’s top returning player from last season, has shown marked development since his sophomore campaign. He has improved his scoring and assist totals while shooting more efficiently from the field (47.2 percent) and free-throw line (89.4 percent) this season. @@

However, despite their sizable impacts, Joseph and Singler are far from being Oregon’s X-factor this season. That honor would go to Sim, who has truly come into his own after three up-and-down seasons as a fringe player for the Ducks.

Prior to this year, Sim had never shot above 35 percent from three-point range or cracked 42 percent from the field. Frankly, he was turnover prone and inconsistent. Sim didn’t possess the scoring flair or size of a shooting guard, but also lacked the tools of a true point guard: court vision and the ability to create for others. Basically, Sim was in no-man’s land and held an uncertain role in Oregon’s backcourt. @@

This season, Sim has looked like a completely revitalized player, oozing confidence in both himself and his teammates. He’s remarkably improved nearly every facet of his game, upping totals in scoring, field-goal percentage and rebounding.

More importantly, his swagger has become infectious. When Sim came out scorching against Washington last Thursday, scoring the game’s first eight points in a dramatic barrage of rainbow jumpers, you could feel the mentality of the whole team shift. Though the Ducks blew out the Huskies by 25 points, Sim’s torrid start had launched the attack. His confidence boosted the team to flat-out dominate the top squad in the Pac-12 standings. @@

Last week, the importance of Sim, Singler and Joseph was readily apparent. Against Washington State, the three accounted for 26 of Oregon’s 36 points in the first half, and 55 of the team’s 78 points for the game. Against Washington, the trio assumed a slightly lighter workload, scoring 39 of the Ducks’ 82 points against the Cougars. @@ @@ @@

But Oregon’s three-headed monster can’t be summed up in statistics. Its effect can be felt most poignantly through emotional leadership; a steady free-throw stroke in a pressure situation or big shots during a prolonged offensive drought.

With Pac-12 play winding down and Oregon running on all cylinders, these three have their eyes on the prize. With Sim and Joseph clinging to their final weeks as collegiate players, expect the Ducks to put it all on the line to win a watered-down conference and keep the dream alive.

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