Although it opened the season with the school’s longest winning streak in nearly 70 years, Oregon appears to be playing its best basketball heading into the NCAA tournament.
The Ducks look to carry the momentum from an astounding run through their conference tournament into Friday’s matchup with Miami of Ohio, one of the biggest surprises to make the field of 65.
Oregon (26-7) has won six in a row, including an 81-57 rout of Southern California in the Pac-10 championship game Saturday.
That victory capped an impressive conference tournament for the Ducks, who defeated Arizona, California and the Trojans by an average of 20.3 points, and were rewarded with a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional.
“I definitely think it’s set up great for us, especially the way we’re playing,” forward Malik Hairston said. “I think the sky’s the limit for us right now.”
Oregon opened the season with 13 straight victories—its longest winning streak since taking 14 in a row to open the 1937-38 season—and was 18-1 almost halfway through its conference schedule. Things turned quickly, though, as the Ducks dropped six of their next eight games.
After that rough stretch in which they lost three times by three points or less, Oregon has bounced back and was ranked No. 10 in Monday’s poll.
“We’re playing great basketball right now and at the right time of the year,” freshman guard Tajuan Porter said. “We just want to continue our run and continue our great play into the tournament.”
The Ducks are lead by senior guard Aaron Brooks and junior Bryce Taylor, who’s coming off an amazing performance in the Pac-10 title game.
Taylor, who averages 14.8 points, scored a career-high 32 against USC, going 11-for-11 from the field, 7-for-7 from 3-point range and 3-for-3 from the free-throw line. He was removed with 6 1/2 minutes left and Oregon ahead by 39 points.
Brooks has also had his share of clutch efforts this season, scoring points that have won or tied the game in the final minute or overtime six times this season. He’s averaging 17.5 points and has shot 18-for-36 from 3-point range during the winning streak, and was named to the All-Pac-10 team.
“This team is very, very deserving of this and I couldn’t be more happy for them,” coach Ernie Kent said. “Now the real fun starts for them.”
Oregon is making its fourth trip to the NCAA tournament under Kent, who took over the program in 1997. The Ducks haven’t been to the tournament since 2003, though, also the last time they won the conference tournament.
They lost to Utah in the first round that year, and last advanced past the first round in 2002, when they reached the regional final.
Miami (18-14) is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 following an improbable run through the Mid-American Conference tournament.
The RedHawks needed to win the conference tourney to make the NCAAs, and did so by defeating Akron 53-52 in the title game on Doug Penno’s banked 3-pointer in the final second Saturday.
“I knew they wouldn’t be sending us to Lexington or Columbus or Chicago,” said coach Charlie Coles, whose team opens play in Spokane, Wash. “I knew that right off the bat. But given our situation, I think some of our guys are happy just to still be playing.”
Miami was the No. 1 defensive team in the MAC, holding opponents to 57.4 points a game, and will look to shut down an Oregon squad that averaged 77.0 points on 53.8 percent shooting in the Pac-10 tournament.
Offensively, the RedHawks prefer to slow the tempo, averaging just 59.6 points per game, and they’ll likely rely on that strategy of working the clock and playing a half-court game to try and contain the athletic Ducks.
“We didn’t have a real great regular season, but we knew we had a great chance to get (into the NCAA tournament),” said conference tournament MVP Tim Pollitz, who averaged 22.0 points on 75.6 percent shooting in those games. “Now we get Oregon up around their place. It’s almost their home floor. What it comes down to is going up there and playing Miami defense and seeing what happens.”
Oregon and Miami have met once, with the Ducks winning 74-38 on Dec. 20, 1938. Oregon went on to capture the national championship that season.
Friday’s winner will play sixth-seeded Notre Dame or 11th seed Winthrop on Sunday.