Playing just their second game without starting center Chris Boucher, No. 3 seed Oregon advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, 93-77, surviving a No. 14 Iona team that proved to be a tougher out than it looked like they would be.
The Ducks will face the winner of No. 6 Creighton and No. 11 Rhode Island on Sunday.
Oregon jumped out to an 18-point halftime lead and were up by as much as 26 points in the second half before the Gaels scrapped back. Dayshonee Much scored 15 points and Jordan Washington shook off an ankle injury to add 20 points as Iona got within 13 points on a couple of different occasions.
But the story of this game was Oregon, their dominance despite playing without Boucher, who tore his ACL during the Pac-12 tournament last week.
The guy that took Boucher’s minutes was Kavell Bigby-Williams, a JuCo transfer and 6-foot-11 native of England that has played 14 minutes in each of the last two games, but the biggest difference between Oregon now and Oregon when they had Boucher available seems to be a shift to small-ball. The lineup that Dana Altman started featured Payton Pritchard, Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey in the back court with Dillon Brooks at the four and Jordan Bell at the five, and considering how effective and efficient the Ducks can be with that group on the floor, losing Boucher doesn’t seem like it is going to be a death blow to their national title hopes.
Bell is a sensational defender and a ridiculous athlete in the front court; he had 17 points and 10 boards Friday and should be able to man the paint for the Ducks as long as he stays out of foul trouble. Oregon doesn’t lose floor-spacing with four guards out there, and there’s an argument to be made that Brooks is at his most effective when he plays as Oregon’s small-ball four.
I would stop short of saying that Oregon is better without Boucher, because his ability to block shots and hit threes is a unique skill set that lets Oregon space the floor without losing rim protection or rebounding. When they have to go to a big lineup, it’s better to have Bell and Boucher on the floor than Bell and Bigby-Williams.
But I also think that Oregon’s best lineup is the lineup that they started tonight.
And with a tournament draw that likely keeps the Ducks from having to face a team that can overpower them in the paint until a potential Final Four matchup with North Carolina, they are in a pretty good spot.