SAN JOSE, Calif. — Oregon coach Dana Altman discovered the season-changing decision by accident. It was Feb. 21, and the Ducks were just walloped by USC in Los Angeles.
He was mad at the team, and in his emotional state he made a dramatic decision.
“I lost my composure a little bit,” Altman said. “And the one guy in the locker room who at that time was by far the most unselfish, all about the team, was Francis Okoro.”
Altman told the team that he would announce the starters moments before the upcoming game against UCLA, except for Okoro. He will start.
Altman started Okoro, Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten, Paul White and Louis King. Pritchard is the only player in the lineup under 6-foot-9, and the Ducks call it the “jumbo,” lineup. He’s stuck with them as starters since, and the Ducks are 8-1 with a championship run in the Pac-12 Tournament thanks to some of the best defense they’ve played all year.
“I wish I could say it was planned and something that was well thought out, but it was an accident,” Altman said. “But it's worked out. All that credit goes to Francis. He has been unbelievable as a freshman who reclassified.”
Okoro’s energy gave the Ducks a spark. The Ducks lost the game against UCLA, but Altman saw something he liked during it. The height and length of the lineup gives opposing offenses fits. With the exception of Pritchard — who is not that small at 6-foot-2 — everyone can bother defenders.
“The lineup has been really great for us,” Okoro said. “We have a lot of length, and I think the main thing is it gives us confidence.”
It gives them confidence to switch on defense. When opposing offenses run a pick-and-roll, the Ducks feel like every one of them can guard both the ball handler and the roll-man.
“Everybody can switch,” Wooten said. “We’re not worried about where we’re at on the floor because we just keep switching. … We can just keep switching off and it won’t be too much of a problem or a mismatch.”
Oregon posted some of its best defensive numbers with the jumbo starting lineup. In the current eight-game win streak, the Ducks are allowing an average of 82.1 points per 100 possessions. Texas Tech is No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency this season at 86.1.
Okoro is the big reason for the success. His energy is consistently one of the best on the team, and it sets the tone early in the game.
“I credit a lot of it to Francis for coming in and boosting us,” Pritchard said. “It just allows us to play bigger, really get after it on the boards and be long on defensive.”
They’ll need it against Wisconsin on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Ethan Happ is one of the best centers in basketball, and he has a variety of weapons around him.
“Everybody on the team now has to think like a veteran because everybody's been on the team for six months now,” Okoro said. “There’s no room for little mistakes.”
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