SAN JOSE, Calif. — On the white board in Oregon's locker room at HP Pavilion was a bracket with the four teams in its section of the draw and the phrase "Sweet 16" in all caps at the end of it.
The way the Ducks played Thursday afternoon, they just might get there.
Despite insisting the past few days they hadn't felt slighted the selection committee seeded them four to six lines below where most projections had them, the Ducks still sent a message with their performance that they deserved better than a No. 12 seed. They dominated the glass, held potential lottery pick Marcus Smart in check and rolled to a 68-55 victory over fifth-seeded Oklahoma State, earning a date with fourth-seeded Saint Louis in the round of 32.
"We were kind of surprised being seeded 12th," guard Johnathan Loyd said. "It was a little bit of motivation to go out and prove people wrong, people who were saying we weren't going to get this win."
If the hire of coach Dana Altman was a disappointment for some Oregon fans three years ago, it's safe to say that's no longer the case. Nobody in Eugene is yearning for Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon, Mike Anderson or any of the other high-profile candidates who turned down the job now that Altman had led the Ducks to a Pac-12 tournament title and an NCAA tournament victory in his third season at the helm.
Expected to finish in the middle of the Pac-12 after graduating three of their four leading scorers, Oregon instead emerged as a surprise team thanks to the quickness and shooting of freshman guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson and the rebounding prowess of transfer Arsalan Kazemi. The Ducks faded a bit in February after Artis broke his foot when the team was 18-2, but they rebounded to win the Pac-12 tournament title last week even as the freshman guard was still struggling to recapture his prior form.
Among those surprised to see Oregon pop up with a No. 12 seed next to its name was Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who made no excuses for his team's loss yet acknowledged the Ducks were "no typical 12 seed."
"I think [the committee] would admit that at this point," Ford said. "You could see that they're a really good basketball team. Twenty-six wins, won at UNLV, won the Pac-12 tournament. I think they would admit that just because every single other person has said the same thing."
The way Oregon controlled Thursday's game from start to finish, the Ducks certainly looked deserving of a higher seed.
Rebounding was viewed as Oregon's biggest advantage before the game, and the Ducks delivered, out-rebounding Oklahoma State 44-32 and grabbing 14 offensive boards alone. Kazemi spearheaded the effort with 17 rebounds, so many that he joked after the game, "Sometimes my teammates tell me I grab their rebounds."
Where the Ducks were expected to struggle was defending Smart, who at 6-4, 225 pounds had a huge size and strength advantage over the 6-foot-1 Artis and the 5-foot-8 Loyd. Smart did manage 14 points, but he needed 13 shots to get that and he committed five turnovers, a testament to the different strategies Altman's team employed to make him work for his points.
When he was on the perimeter, Oregon's smaller guards got up under him, swiped at the ball and frustrated him with their quickness. When he posted up in the paint, Artis or Loyd fronted him to deny passes and a big man provided help on the other side. And when Ford inserted Phil Forte alongside Smart, Altman switched Artis or Loyd onto the pint-sized shooting guard and had taller, stronger Damyean Dotson check Smart.
"I just thought Johnny and DA did a great job," Altman said. "I told DA and Johnny, there's no doubt he's more physical, much more powerful than you guys are, but I really believed they were quicker. And we had to get him away from the basket and try to use that quickness. I thought DA and Johnny did a good job of that."
The one benefit to Oregon getting a No. 12 seed was that an opening-round win meant a round of 32 clash with a No. 4 seed instead of a No. 1 or 2. Saint Louis will certainly be a big challenge Saturday, but the Ducks are excited to try to prove themselves once more.
"We've definitely been underrated all season, even in the Pac-12," freshman forward Ben Carter said. "It was motivation for us. We have a lot of competitors on this team, and we love to prove people wrong."