Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.
This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.
WHY THEY CAN WIN: The Ducks were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season. They won the Pac-12 regular season title. They won the Pac-12 tournament title. They reached the Elite 8 and were a 37-point Buddy Hield outburst away from getting to the Final Four.
You may not have noticed because they play on the west coast, they’re not named UCLA or Arizona and the program is overshadowed at a football school, but Oregon was damn good last season.
And they bring back just about everyone, most notably Dillon Brooks, who is expected to be back to full strength – more on that later – by the time league plays rolls around. Brooks, a 6-foot-6 small forward, averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 boards and 3.1 assists as a sophomore last season. He declared for the NBA Draft and might have been picked had he not shot 33.8 percent from three last year. He would have been a first-team preseason all-american if it wasn’t for a foot surgery that may keep him out until December.
The Ducks also return Tyler Dorsey, a former top 50 recruit that is a perfect fit in the back court for the offense that head coach Dana Altman runs. As a freshman, Dorsey averaged 13.4 points, 4.3 boards and 2.0 assists while shooting 40.6 percent from three, playing some of his best basketball down the stretch. Those numbers will go up this year, especially with Brooks out.
Dorsey is at his best when he’s allowed to play off the ball, and that’s exactly what is going to happen this season. Former Villanova guard Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA while the Ducks also return Casey Benson, who had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country. Throw in freshmen Payton Pritchard and Keith Smith, and Altman has plenty of options on his perimeter.
He also has some quality front court pieces at his disposal as well. Chris Boucher is back for another season. Boucher is one of the nation’s most unique players, as he averaged 2.9 blocks and made 39 threes. He ability to protect the rim defensively and pull bigs away from the rim offensively is an incredibly valuable weapon for Oregon.
Jordan Bell is back and healthy as well. Bell is a freak-of-nature athlete that took some time recovering from a broken foot he suffered prior to last season. He doesn’t do much damage away from the paint, but he’s so strong and athletic that it doesn’t matter. With JuCo Player of the Year Kavell Bigby-Williams and four-star freshman M.J. Cage joining the fray, Altman will not suffer for front court depth, either.
There are talented pieces on this roster and players that fill valuable roles for Altman, who is one of the best coaches in America at finding a way to win games with the players that he has. This isn’t a perfect roster construction – again, more on that in a bit – but there’s enough here to assume that the Ducks won’t fall off that much from a season ago.
WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The biggest problem that Oregon has facing them as of today is the injury that their all-american wing Dillon Brooks is currently dealing with.
Here’s what we know: Brooks had surgery on his foot. What did he have the surgery on and why did he have it in that particular spot? Oregon has not made that information available in any official capacity, although Altman did say over the summer that Brooks did not have a broken foot.
We also don’t know how long Brooks is going to be out for. He had the surgery in late July, he spent more than a month using a scooter to get around, then was forced to use a walking boot before, finally, being allowed to shed the boot two days before the Ducks started practicing. Brooks told reporters last week that there is no timetable for his return, but it’s clear he’s progressing. A best-case scenario likely gets him back on the floor sometime in mid-to-late November, late enough that he’ll miss all of Oregon’s key non-conference games – at Baylor, Valparaiso, the Maui Invitational – but early enough that Brooks would get six or seven under his belt before Pac-12 play kicks off.
And, assuming Brooks is able to get back to 100 percent by the turn of the calendar, Oregon should be fine. The Ducks should be the favorite to win the conference and the committee will factor in his absence when determining Oregon’s seed for the NCAA tournament.
But are we sure Brooks will be back to 100 percent?
Unfortunately, Oregon fans know all too well about the problems with foot injuries after the 2015-16 season. It took Jordan Bell eight months to recover breaking his foot in April of 2015 and even longer to look like the player he was before the injury. Dylan Ennis returned from his foot injury for two games and 21 minutes of basketball before he aggravated the injury and missed the rest of the season. Anything less than a return to the player he was before the injury would be a massive problem for the Ducks because Brooks is not only an all-american caliber player, but he’s the kind of “positionless” player that made the Ducks so dangerous last season.
Altman runs the “Spread Offense” – if you’re into the x’s-and-o’s, there’s a terrific breakdown of it here – but the tl;dr version is that it’s a system that prioritizes skilled players that can play on the perimeter or in the post.
Brooks isn’t the same kind of player as Draymond Green, but he plays a similar role for Oregon because of his versatility. Last year, if Oregon wanted to put a big lineup on the floor, Brooks was able to slide down to the two and play as a guard. When the Ducks wanted to go small, Altman was able to to slot him at the four without sacrificing too much defensively.
That positionlessness is a huge part of what made Oregon so tough to defend last season.
But it is going to be difficult for the Ducks to repeat that this season, as Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin both graduated. Like Brooks, Cook and Benjamin were both athletic, 6-foot-7 wings that could play and guard multiple positions. Other than Brooks, the only guy on the Oregon roster that can even be considered for a role like that is a freshman named Keith Smith who has battled knee injuries the last two years.
Altman is a terrific coach and I do believe that he’ll be able to find a way to get this group to win games regardless of who is on their roster, but there’s a lower ceiling and less margin for error for this team than others in the top five because of their lack of surefire NBA talent. Coach K can change what he does on a yearly – or monthly, or nightly – basis because it doesn’t really matter what offense you’re running when you have the three best players on the floor.
That’s not the case with Oregon.
For the Ducks, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that’s because each piece on that roster fits in the equation created by Altman. Will that still be the case this season, when the Ducks are missing so many pieces that make Altman’s offense awesome?
PREDICTION: Oregon took a trip to Spain in August, where they played four games against professional teams in exhibitions. Brooks couldn’t even walk at that point, let alone play basketball at that level.
Generally speaking, teams that take preseason trips abroad are in a better spot early in the season because they get those extra practices, and they get that game time earlier in the calendar, and they’re able to spend more time together with their teammates. For the Ducks, it meant that they were able to do all of those things without having Brooks available.
Does that solve any of the problems we listed earlier regarding Brooks’ absence and what it does to Oregon’s offense?
But Altman is a terrific coach, one that always seems to be able to out-perform expectations regardless of what he has on his roster, and giving him an extra three weeks in August to come up with those answers will only help.
Given the question marks surrounding the other teams at the top of the Pac-12 totem pole, Oregon will probably compete for a Pac-12 title regardless of how healthy Brooks is. But competing for a Pac-12 title and being a national title contender in a year where Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova are loaded are two totally different things, especially when there are so many question marks surrounding an all-american.