After three days in the Bahamas, one thing is clear: Oregon can play with anyone.
Now, the Ducks face a harsh reality. No matter how close you play, or how much you overcome, a loss is a loss, and Oregon returns to Eugene with two of them.
Dana Altman and his squad faced three top-12 teams back-to-back-to-back, all in less than 24-hour spans — a task that no other team will likely face this season. And despite the losses, the Ducks now have valuable big-game experience that will prove crucial when March rolls around.
Here are some takeaways from two of the Emerald’s men’s basketball beat writers.
Shane Hoffmann: Slow starts and wasted energy
In all three games, the Ducks faced double-digit deficits, with two of those exceeding 15 points. They proved they can battle back from any hole, but in doing so highlighted an early flaw this team seems to have.
Whether it was the first half against Gonzaga when they were down 24-7, or the 19-point lead they surrendered to Seton Hall in the second, the Ducks have looked flat-out stagnant at times.
The offense frequently stalled as Oregon struggled to penetrate the paint. On the other end, the defense seemed half-asleep for portions of the game, excellently illustrated by the open threes the Ducks gave up throughout the tournament.
The energy required to claw back into games seemed to hurt the Ducks late in both the Gonzaga and North Carolina games as they failed to execute in the final minutes. A glaring aspect was the Ducks’ poor free throw shooting.
If you don’t hit free throws, it’s hard to overcome big leads, let alone steal games down the stretch. Outside of the team’s guards, no Duck has proven to be efficient at the line, with some of them shooting egregious percentages. Improvement at the line is the first step for the Ducks if they hope to turn close losses against ranked teams into big wins.
Brady Lim: N’Faly Dante can’t get here soon enough
The Ducks got outplayed down low all tournament, especially in the two losses to Gonzaga and North Carolina.
Francis Okoro and Shakur Juiston were consistently pushed around on the block and couldn’t finish at the rim — the Tar Heels blocked 12 shots on Friday and erased a number of promising possessions set up by Oregon guards. When the shots aren’t falling (34% FG against Gonzaga and UNC combined), that kind of production from Okoro and Juiston isn’t going to cut it. And if you’re not going to hit free throws, you have to finish through contact. They did neither.
On Thursday, though, Oregon got good news: 5-star freshman and 6-foot-11 center N’Faly Dante was ruled eligible to join the team immediately. It’s unclear when he’ll make his season debut, but being able to practice with the team for the first time all season will provide a boost down low to a team that desperately needs it, and he should be in the lineup by the time the Ducks travel to Ann Arbor to take on a Michigan team that beat No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Dante almost certainly would’ve been the difference in both of the losses, and he’ll be back soon. But one thing is still very clear: Okoro and Juiston have to be better moving forward.
Hoffmann: CJ Walker has arrived
While the tournament provided valuable reps for the team as a whole, no one benefited more than the freshman from Orlando, Florida.
In the three-game span, CJ Walker went from borderline-unplayable to a necessary piece of Altman’s rotation. The freshman who had scored just four points through his first five games, scored 29 on the island.
His free throw shooting, — roughly 50% on the season — touch around the rim and foul-prone play are glaring weaknesses, but he possesses some elite skills as well.
Athletically, he showed flashes on both ends. On offense, he can rise up with anyone, and his offensive rebounding is elite for a player with his physical profile. In addition, his 3-point shot is coming along nicely. He hit three shots from deep in the tournament.
Lim: Payton Pritchard is one of the best point guards in the country
Senior point guard Payton Pritchard looked every bit the part of one of the best point guards in the nation against three high-quality opponents.
He averaged 17.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game for the tournament on 44% shooting from deep, and often carried the Oregon offense when it otherwise failed to create. Although he missed two potential game-winners in the final seconds, he hit big shots late in all three games to keep the Ducks within striking distance, and brought momentum with him every time he checked into the game.
Despite the shot-making, though, the most impressive takeaway from Pritchard’s performance in the Bahamas was his playmaking. Earlier in his career, he often beat the first man off the bounce only to pick up his dribble at the free throw line and kick it back out to reset.
This year — and in this tournament specifically — he drove with a purpose. He got deep in the paint on countless occasions and either finished at the rim or set up teammates with dump-offs and second-chance opportunities. He was far and away the best Duck on the floor the entire tournament, and absolutely looked like one of the best point guards in the country.
Hoffmann: What is Oregon’s best lineup?
Much was made of the Ducks’ potential lineups through the offseason and early games. While it was in large part due to the immense turnover and unknown that comes with new personnel, on paper, Oregon’s roster looked to be one of the most versatile in the nation.
Now that there’s a substantial sample size, what’s Oregon’s best lineup?
The easy answer is it depends on the game, but a deeper dive indicates that a shakeup could be in order post-Bahamas.
Let’s start with the obvious: Pritchard is the team’s point guard and, barring an injury, will definitely be in its closing lineup.
From there, though, an immediate question mark at the two-spot arises. Entering the tournament, the answer would have been 3-point sharpshooter Anthony Mathis. However, Mathis struggled to find his shot in the Bahamas. He rarely got his shot off and when he did, rarely got them to go down — making just one. In lieu of another key skill, Will Richardson seems more readily equipped to play next to Pritchard down the stretch.
Chris Duarte’s versatile scoring touch and above-average rebounding for his size make him a good fit next to the guard duo.
Shakur Juiston saved Oregon against Seton Hall, but has been shaky on offense since and often looked robotic on that end of the floor. That being said, his overall impact and tendency to do the little things still make him an indispensable player in the closing lineup.
Walker’s play of late could help him find an increased role playing over either of the forwards, too.
Center, much like the second guard position, is a hard one. After a positive start to the year, Francis Okoro all but disappeared this week. He was repeatedly bullied down low and his inability on offense makes him unplayable at times. Chandler Lawson has the makings of an elite defender and rebounder, but it is likely that Dante will be Oregon’s center by the start of conference play.
Lim: Failure to pad March resume
The win against No. 13 Seton Hall was a great resume win. They withstood an otherworldly performance from All-American Myles Powell and made enough plays down the stretch to steal a victory. That, combined with convincing wins over the two favorites in the American Athletic Conference — No. 16 Memphis and Houston — already give the Ducks some of the best wins of the college basketball season so far.
That said, the Battle 4 Atlantis will ultimately be seen as a missed opportunity.
The Ducks had shots in the air to take the lead in the final seconds of games against No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 6 North Carolina, and they ultimately failed to close both of them. By beating top-20 teams and losing to top-10 teams, it sends a strong message to the rest of the country that this Oregon team isn’t a top-10 team just yet. They’re great, but not elite.
They’ll get opportunities to pad their resume with Michigan, Arizona, Colorado and Washington still on their schedule, but a win against one of the two top-10 teams they faced in the Bahamas would’ve certified the Ducks’ resume as one of the most impressive in the country.