College Hoops Contender Series: Should Oregon be worried about Dillon Brooks’ foot?

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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.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

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.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage |Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

OREGON DUCKS

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball in the first half while taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks (Harry How/Getty Images)

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.

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SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 20: Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks shoots a jump shot against the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 20, 2016 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Dorsey (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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.

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball against Chase Jeter #2 and Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Jordan Bell (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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?

Not really.

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.

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Chris Boucher #25 of the Oregon Ducks shoots against Cullen Hamilton #5 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Chris Boucher (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Minnesota-Illinois postponed for COVID-19 in Gophers program

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MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota’s game at Illinois that was scheduled for Tuesday has been postponed because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols within the Gophers’ program.

The announcement was made Monday by Minnesota, which didn’t specify how many players would have been unable to play.

The Gophers (7-15, 1-11) had only eight available scholarship players for their last game, an 81-46 loss to Maryland on Saturday. Dawson Garcia (ankle) has missed the last four games, and Braeden Carrington (leg) has missed the last six. Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen will not play this season while recovering from knee injuries.

The game will be rescheduled by the Big Ten, with input from both schools.

Minnesota is next scheduled to host Iowa on Sunday. Illinois (16-7, 7-5) will host No. 24 Rutgers on Saturday.

Purdue stays No. 1 in AP Top 25; NC State in at No. 22

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Purdue’s unquestioned grip on No. 1 in The Associated Press poll is gone after a weekend loss. That didn’t stop the Boilermakers from remaining at the top anyway.

The Boilermakers earned 38 of 62 first-place votes in the poll to remain at No. 1 for a third straight week and seventh time this season. Purdue was the unanimous choice last week, the first for any team this season, before falling at Indiana over the weekend for only its second loss.

The Boilermakers (22-2, 11-2) have a leading candidate for national player of the year in Zach Edey and KenPom’s No. 1-ranked offense (121.1 points scored per 100 possessions) to go with a top-25 defense. But they got down big, committed 16 turnovers and allowed the Hoosiers — up to No. 18 this week — to shoot nearly 53% in a 79-74 loss Saturday.

“When we go to Zach and we make some perimeter shots, the defense gets better sometimes when the offense flows,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said at his postgame news conference. “And you can’t do that. You can always rebound, you can always take care of the ball, you can always make your free throws, those things there.”

The loss meant Houston collected 22 first-place votes as it rose one spot to No. 2, followed by No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Arizona in each claiming one.

THE TOP TIER

Texas jumped five spots to No. 5, shooting past Tennessee, which fell four spots to No. 6 after losing last week at Florida.

UCLA, Virginia, Kansas and Marquette rounded out the top 10, with Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles cracking the top 10 for the first time since 2019.

RISING

The Longhorns’ jump marked the biggest of the week, followed by Marquette and Miami each rising four spots. No. 13 Xavier, No. 15 Saint Mary’s and No. 21 UConn joined Indiana in each moving up three positions.

In all, 12 teams rose from last week’s rankings.

SLIDING

Kansas State took the week’s biggest tumble, falling five spots to No. 12 after losing at Kansas and at home to Texas last week. No. 16 Gonzaga joined Tennessee in falling four spots after its overtime loss at Saint Mary’s.

In all, nine teams fell from last week’s rankings.

STATUS QUO

Purdue was the only team to remain in the same position this week.

WELCOME

North Carolina State earned its first AP Top 25 ranking in four years, checking in at No. 22.

The Wolfpack (19-5, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) spent six weeks in the poll during the 2018-19 season. N.C. State already has surpassed the win total for each of the last two seasons and is in contention for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018.

Creighton and Rutgers joined N.C. State as this week’s new additions to the poll, though both were ranked earlier this season. The Bluejays were No. 9 in the preseason poll and peaked at No. 7 before falling out by mid-December, while the Scarlet Knights spent a week at No. 23 in mid-January.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

Florida Atlantic (No. 19), Clemson (No. 20) and Auburn (No. 25) fell out of this week’s poll.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The Big 12 leads all leagues with six ranked teams, including No. 11 Iowa State, No. 14 Baylor and No. 17 TCU. The Big East is next with five ranked teams, followed by the Big Ten and ACC with three each.

The Pac-12, Southeastern and West Coast conferences each have two ranked teams, while the American Athletic and Mountain West each have one.

Indiana reaches No. 2 in women’s AP Top 25; South Carolina still No. 1

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South Carolina beat a top opponent to remain No. 1 in the women’s poll and now has a showdown with another one looming this weekend.

The Gamecocks (23-0) topped then- No. 5 UConn 81-77 to remain unbeaten and stay the unanimous choice atop the poll from the 28-member national media panel. After facing Auburn, South Carolina will play No. 3 LSU in a matchup of the last two unbeatens in Division I women’s college basketball.

Dawn Staley’s team has won 29 consecutive games and has been No. 1 in the poll for 33 consecutive weeks. That’s one week short of tying the Huskies for the third-longest streak atop the poll. Only UConn (51 weeks) and Louisiana Tech (36) have had longer runs at No. 1.

While South Carolina has had a stranglehold on No. 1 for more than a year, Indiana is making its first appearance ever at No. 2 after Stanford lost to Washington.

“I’m going to relish this for a minute, knowing where the program was to where it is,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “We’ve made a lot of history since we’ve been here in our nine seasons and it’s one of the more historical things we’ve been able to accomplish. Give our players credit, I don’t want to discount what a big achievement this is. We’re more than humbled to be No. 2.”

Indiana has won 10 straight since suffering its lone loss of the season to Michigan State. The Hoosiers have a tough stretch coming up, starting with a home game against No. 5 Iowa. Indiana, which hadn’t been ranked higher than fourth, then plays No. 13 Ohio State and 12th-ranked Michigan.

“That’s why we take it one game at a time, but you understand the magnitude of what’s ahead of us. I tell the kids all the time we’re in control of our own destiny,” Moren said.

LSU remained at No. 3 after close wins over Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M. The Tigers have a week to prepare for the Gamecocks.

UConn moved up one spot to fourth after its close loss to the Gamecocks and Iowa was fifth.

The Cardinal fell to sixth with Utah, Maryland, Duke and Notre Dame rounding out the top 10. The Blue Devils beat the Irish to take over sole possession of first in the ACC and vault up six spots in the poll. It’s Duke’s best ranking since the team finished the 2017 season ranked ninth.

FALLING CYCLONES

It was a rough week for Iowa State, which lost to Kansas by one point and Baylor by six. The Cyclones fell nine spots in the poll from 12th to 21st.

RE-ENTRY

Colorado came back into the poll at No. 25 after beating Oregon and Oregon State over the weekend. The Buffaloes were ranked for four weeks before falling out last week. Middle Tennessee dropped out of the poll after losing both its games last week.

No. 1 South Carolina tops fifth-ranked UConn 81-77

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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HARTFORD, Conn. – In a rematch of last season’s national championship game, South Carolina came out on top again over UConn thanks to a strong fourth quarter by Aliyah Boston.

Geno Auriemma stepping onto the court to spike a water botte, that helped them, too.

Boston scored 23 of her 26 points in the second half, including 14 in the final period, to help the No. 1 Gamecocks beat the fifth-ranked Huskies 81-77 on Sunday in front of a sellout crowd.

“Aliyah is just relentless, she plays relentlessly although she had a subpar (first half) as far as statistics, she impacted the game,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She doesn’t get flustered. she knew she didn’t play up to her standards. What does she do? Raise her standard. Bad first half or not she’s going to continue to play.”

While there wasn’t as much on the line as the title game last April, there was a high intensity to it, including Auriemma getting the technical late in the fourth quarter after getting frustrated by the officiating enough to throw the bottle.

“I thought there were a lot of things being overlooked. It was difficult for some of our guys to move out on the floor,” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach. “I didn’t think it was one key play, I just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It was bad. … Dumb mistake by me. Bad decision.”

The Gamecocks (23-0) have won 29 consecutive games since losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game last year. They’ve won four of the past five meetings with the Huskies, including a victory in the NCAA championship game last season. That ended UConn’s perfect 11-0 record in title games.

“This was a national championship-like game. I wanted us to feel what it takes to do this,” Staley said.

Now South Carolina finally has a win in Connecticut after winning there before.

South Carolina used its size again to top the Huskies. The 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso and Boston, the reigning AP Player of the Year helped the Gamecocks have a 42-30 advantage on the boards, including grabbing 25 offensive rebounds.

Boston finished with 11 rebounds for the 76th double-double of her career. Cardoso added 17 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

With her team leading by four in the fourth quarter, Boston took over. She scored the next 12 points for South Carolina, two of those came when Auriemma tossed the water onto the court and was charged with the technical foul.

Boston hit the two free throws. She then hit a jumper, a 3-pointer and another basket to give the Gamecocks a double-digit advantage.

“I’m kind of in attack mode. In the second half I made more shots then I did in the first half,” Boston said.

Despite seeing their starting backcourt foul out, the short-handed Huskies (21-3) wouldn’t go away. They whittled the lead down to 80-77 with 10.8 seconds left on Aubrey Griffin’s three-point play.

Raven Johnson hit the first of two free throws a second later and UConn couldn’t convert to close out the game

“They have a lot to feel good about once they get past what it feels like to lose,” Auriemma said. “I feel better at 3 o’clock today then I did at 12 o’clock. I didn’t know how we’d respond. I knew we’d play hard and compete like hell. I didn’t know who was going to make a big play, who was going to get a big rebound, make a big shot. I know now more than I did at noon and I feel better about my team.”

Aaliyah Edwards led UConn with 25 points.

UConn got off to a solid start, outscoring South Carolina 25-14 in the opening period. Lou Lopez Senechal capped the strong start, hitting a running 3-pointer just before the buzzer.

South Carolina asserted its size in the second quarter with Cardoso scoring 11 points in the period. Her putback with just under 10 seconds left tied the game at 34 heading into the half.

TIP-INS:

UConn is 8-10 against No. 1 teams all time. … The Huskies are still missing guards Azzi Fudd (knee), Caroline Ducharme (concussion) as well as Paige Bueckers (knee) and Ice Brady (knee), who are both out for the season. … Many former UConn players were in the crowd including Sue Bird, Jen Rizzotti, and Napheesa Collier sitting a few rows behind the Huskies bench. … South Carolina has gone 41-6 against ranked teams since the start of the 2019-20 season.

DEPTH:

The Gamecocks reserves outscored UConn’s 37-0. The Huskies only had eight healthy players.

UP NEXT:

South Carolina: visits Auburn on Thursday before a showdown with No. 3 LSU on Feb. 12

UConn: visits Marquette on Wednesday.

No. 16 Duke tops No. 9 Notre Dame 57-52 for 1st place in ACC

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Celeste Taylor scored 14 points and No. 16 Duke came from behind for a 57-52 victory at No. 9 Notre Dame on Sunday to move into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Trailing for most of the game’s first 28 minutes, the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2 ACC) took the lead for good in the final minutes of the third quarter to knock off the Fighting Irish (18-4, 9-3) before a sellout crowd of 9,149 at Purcell Pavilion.

A jumper by Jordyn Oliver put Duke ahead 45-44 with 1:20 left in the third quarter and the visitors never trailed after that.

“I’m proud of my players for finishing the game,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.

Duke led 48-46 going into the fourth quarter after trailing Notre Dame by as many as five points in the third quarter. A steal by Elizabeth Balogun in the final 15 seconds helped seal the win.

A 13-4 run helped Notre Dame take its biggest lead of the first half for either team at 31-23. The Irish led 31-25 at halftime.

“We fell short, but you know it’s a part of our growth,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “It’s part of our journey.”

Taylor scored 10 points for Duke in the second half. Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson finished with 9 points apiece and Taya Corosdale and Oliver had 8 each.

Maddy Westbeld, playing all 40 minutes, led Notre Dame with 15 points, Sonia Citron scored 14 and Olivia Miles added 11.

“She’s one of the best players in the country,” Lawson said of Miles, who logged just over 31 minutes. “We didn’t have to go against her for a quarter of the game.”

COLD SHOOTING

Neither team shot well in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame made just 2 of 13 shots from the floor and Duke was 3 of 13.

“We just talked about staying disciplined defensively and making it hard,” Lawson said. “I though we challenged shots.”

Ivey also addressed that stretch of the game.

“Some of those opportunities were in transition and we didn’t get a chance to capitalize,” she said. “We did a good job of finding the open person, we just didn’t nail the shots.”

SUPERB SUBS

Led by Corosdale and Oliver, Duke enjoyed a 21-4 edge in reserve scoring.

“I’m really proud of my players off the bench,” Lawson said. “Jordyn Oliver was really good.

“We needed to have that depth in scoring. Not only did they score but they were efficient from the field.”

The Blue Devils’ bench shot 9 of 15.

SHORT-HANDED IRISH

Notre Dame graduate student Dara Mabrey was lost for the season in the Jan. 22 game against Virginia.

Lauren Ebo, a 6-foot-4 graduate student, has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury.

“Ebo does a great job of being a precence on the block with her size and ability to rebound and play post defense,” Ivey said. “She’s been working really hard (at rehabilitation).

“It’s kind of day to day.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish fell out of a first-place tie with Duke in the ACC standings.

Duke: The Blue Devils are now alone atop the conference standings.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Irish meet Pitt in two of the next four contests – on Thursday in South Bend and on Sunday, Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh.

Duke: The only regular-season meeting between the Blue Devils and Boston College is Thursday at Boston.