LAS VEGAS — If any prognosticators are discounting Oregon after it lost standout forward Chris Boucher on the eve of Selection Sunday, Dillon Brooks wants them to know he thinks they’re making a huge mistake.
The Pac-12 player of the year defiantly insists all of Oregon’s NCAA tournament goals are still in reach, a return trip to the Elite Eight, a berth in the Final Four and even the Ducks’ first national championship since 1939.
“Chris is out, and we’re just going to stop trying to win, stop competing?” Brooks said. “That’s not happening. This is only going to motivate us to work to get better and push as hard as we can in the [NCAA] tournament.”
The way Oregon played in an 83-80 Pac-12 title game loss to Arizona to some extent validated Brooks’ optimism. Only hours after coach Dana Altman informed his team that an MRI exam had revealed Boucher suffered a torn ACL the previous night, the Ducks managed to stage a spirited rally from a 14-point second-half deficit and push one of the nation’s elite teams until the game’s final minute.
Three times in the game’s last two minutes, Oregon had the ball trailing by only four points. One possession went to waste when Tyler Dorsey plowed into Arizona’s Kadeem Allen for a key charging call. Another, Brooks squandered by misfiring on an off-balance, heavily contested 3-pointer. The third, Dorsey had no choice but to hoist a shot quickly and failed to hit a difficult 3-pointer.
Oregon’s loss likely dooms its hopes both of earning a No. 1 seed and securing a spot in the geographically favorable West Region. That the Ducks (29-5) are still in strong position to earn a No. 2 seed was little consolation, nor was their valiant second-half surge at the end of a very emotionally tumultuous day.
“I know nobody in this locker room is happy about coming close,” Oregon guard Dylan Ennis said. “We feel we came this far for nothing. We played hard, but they just beat us tonight. We’re going to come back strong for the [NCAA] tournament.”
For Oregon to reemerge as a Final Four threat even without Boucher, the Ducks will have to find a way to replace what he did best.
Half of one of the nation’s most formidable rim-protecting duo along with Jordan Bell, Boucher averaged 2.5 blocks per game this season and was an impact player for the Ducks at the defensive end of the floor. The 6-foot-10 senior also averaged 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds, not only hurting opponents with his ability to run the court and finish above the rim but also spacing the floor for Oregon’s slashing guards with his 3-point stroke.
One way that Oregon compensated for Boucher’s absence on Saturday night was to surround Bell with four perimeter players. That lineup provided the floor spacing and offensive versatility the Ducks have with Boucher, but only having one true big man on the floor made Oregon more susceptible at the rim.
Arizona’s strong, athletic guards punished Oregon’s newfound weakness, attacking off the dribble over and over again. Allonzo Trier had 23 points, Kadeem Allen added 13 and the Wildcats shot 25 free throws.
“Chris and Jordan inside, a lot of teams are afraid to drive the ball,” Ennis said. “We miss that, but we’ve got to adjust.”
The counter to that could be more playing time for Kavell Bigby-Williams, the national junior college player of the year who has only averaged nine minutes per game this season behind Bell and Boucher. The 6-foot-11 London native clogs up the paint on offense because he isn’t nearly as skilled as Boucher is, but he blocked a pair of shots and yanked down six rebounds against Arizona in just 14 minutes of action.
“This is my chance to show what I can do,” Bigby-Williams said.
“I came from a junior college where I was the main guy, so it was tough coming into a different situation and not having the same role. But the coaches said to stay ready and my teammates said to stay ready and an opportunity would come. Its unfortunate the way it happened, but I feel like I can help the team win.”
While Oregon may never be as versatile without Boucher, the Ducks will have a few days of practice to adjust to his absence before the NCAA tournament. They still have Brooks, the Pac-12’s most lethal scorer. They still have Bell, the league’s premier defender. And they still have a very strong supporting cast, from the sharpshooting Dorsey, to the energetic Ennis, to always-steady Casey Benson.
They’ll also draw motivation from Boucher, already an inspiration because of his positive attitude despite an unfathomably difficult upbringing.
As his Oregon teammates warmed up before Saturday’s game, Boucher sat on the bench cradling and bouncing a ball, no doubt yearning to join his teammates. He was often among the first to stand and cheer on the bench after a big basket and the first to spill out onto the court to high-five a teammate at a timeout.
“Chris is a big part of our team and for that to happen is crazy, but we owe it to him to find a way,” Brooks said. “The next man has to step up and other guys on the team have to fill in for what he does.”
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