When he learned the news about Chris Boucher, Oregon assistant coach Kevin McKenna was sitting in a friend’s cabana at The Mirage in Las Vegas. He was using a sliver of free time during the Pac-12 tournament, maybe a half-hour, tops, to visit with his wife and kids. Then the text message from the team’s trainer landed: Boucher, the Ducks’ shot-swatting, game-altering big man, had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. It was a cannonball-to-the-abdomen moment. McKenna immediately felt crushed for a senior who couldn’t see his final season through. As a coach, he also began worrying about Oregon’s balance and rim protection.
How far Oregon could go after an injury to a key player was a fair question. The program’s first Final Four since the very first Final Four was not the anticipated answer. But a strange thing happened after the moment that changed everything: The Ducks changed hardly anything. They mourned Boucher and tweaked their offense to account for the fact that a 6’10” player with good jump-shot range was no longer available. But nothing truly substantive changed about their approach, emotionally or technically, and that may be the reason Oregon finds itself in a national semifinal against North Carolina on Saturday.
“No, [coach Dana] Altman hasn’t changed one bit, we haven’t changed one bit, in the process of what we do before a game or during a game,” sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey says. “Everything has been the same. Everything has been natural.”
It has not been precisely the same, of course, after Boucher tore his ACL in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over against Cal. He was the team’s third-leading scorer (11.8 points), its second-leading rebounder (6.1) and its leader in blocks (2.5). He also averaged 1.0 points per possession on half-court jumpers-ranking in the 66th percentile nationally, which earns a “very good” rating from Synergy Sports-the sort of floor-stretching presence that can invert and confound a defense. There weren’t any like-for-like replacements in stock.
And, at least until the Elite Eight upset of No. 1 seed Kansas, the Ducks’ defense did not suffer in his absence. With Boucher, Oregon played six games in which its defensive efficiency number registered at 103.0 or worse, per kenpom.com; in the first four games without Boucher, the Ducks’ defensive efficiency was 118.5, 110.3, 112.0 and 103.1, respectively. So how does a team win four straight NCAA tournament games, capping the final victory by limiting Kansas’s turbo-charged offense to 35.0% shooting?
It might be that Oregon got one more important contribution from Boucher. Given the chance to address his teammates after his injury, his message was clear: Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t waste the opportunity ahead. “You never know what could happen,” Boucher said. “Before [games], I was a little bit negative about myself, what I was not doing, whatever. Then when you don’t play at all, you’re like, you should have just been happy that you’re playing, actually.”
The message Altman delivered was sympathetic but also necessarily forward-looking. “It’s, we still have the same ambition, the same goals, the same direction, the same mindset,” McKenna recalled. “We just don’t have one of our really good players.” To that end the schematic tweaks have been minimal. On offense, the coaches had to add a couple of sets for when 6’9” forward Jordan Bell and 6’11” forward Kavell Bigby-Williams were on the floor at the same time; Bigby-Williams doesn’t have Boucher’s shooting touch, so using him in the same way doesn’t make sense. But there has been no significant dip despite losing a unique weapon. In the four games before Boucher’s injury, Oregon’s average offensive efficiency was 117.8; in the four NCAA tournament games it’s been 117.5.
And there was no defensive overhaul, either, despite losing an elite rim protector. “We still have the same defense I think everybody in the country runs,” Bell said. “Guy drives baseline, help side comes, you try to block him. A guard might have to come over and take a charge instead of trying to block it, or wall up and make him kick it back out.” There is no doubt Oregon is a different defensive team; the Ducks blocked just seven shots in their first three NCAA tournament games before Bell went berserk against Kansas and swatted eight all by himself. Structurally, Oregon is the same and Bell just has to be judicious about challenging shots to avoid foul trouble...unless he elects to assert himself as he did against the Jayhawks.
“We’ve got enough versatility with the rest of our guys that those guys can kind of blend in and we can still continue to do what we like to do,” McKenna said.
Continuing to do so may prove difficult against North Carolina.
Bell has devoured teams with limited and/or less ravenous post options for three double-doubles in four NCAA tournament games. The Tar Heels might not have anyone performing at Bell’s level, but they’ll deploy several huge bodies unafraid to tussle in the paint. They’re also the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 41.7% of available caroms at that end. And without Boucher, Oregon has no one to draw a North Carolina big man away from the rim to offset that strength on the glass. In fact, the Ducks will face an opponent that is uniquely equipped to expose Boucher’s absence, while also well-positioned to mitigate Bell’s impact.
Oregon, meanwhile, will continue to believe it can play like nothing has changed. “It was always possible,” forward Dillon Brooks said. “We just had to make minor adjustments. We went through it with the Arizona loss and we bounced back and we won games. We got it done.”
That is all Chris Boucher asked, after all. He didn’t want to be seen as a victim. Oregon has a chance to do something historic and he didn’t want to be, as he puts it, the story of the team: Oh, he’s hurt, everyone feels bad. So when he addressed his fellow Ducks after the ACL diagnosis, he simply wanted his team to act like he was never there. “I wanted to tell them I’m good, I’m going to travel with y’all, you gotta win games,” Boucher said. “That’s it.”
Somehow, Oregon has made it look that easy.