Dillon Brooks went for 23 points, nine boards and four assists, including this three to give No. 21 Oregon a much-needed, 89-87 win over No. 2 UCLA:
Here are five things we learned from this game:
1. This was the first time that we saw the real Oregon: Dillon Brooks didn’t play for the first three games of the season as he was still recovering from a foot injury he suffered over the summer. He had only started two games before Wednesday night’s showdown with the Bruins. The two games that Brooks started happened to coincide with the two games that Chris Boucher missed as he battled an ankle injury that he suffered before Christmas. Boucher is Oregon’s starting center that averages 14.1 points, 7.8 boards and 3.2 blocks.
In other words, in every game that Oregon played before this, the Ducks were either without or playing with a limited Brooks, who would have been a consensus preseason first-team all-american if he didn’t have those injury issues hanging over his head, or without Boucher, who will likely get picked in this June’s NBA Draft.
Hell, on Wednesday Boucher still didn’t look quite like himself; he came off the bench.
I say all that to say this: Oregon was a preseason top five team in very large part due to the presence of those two players. Tyler Dorsey is a talented scorer. Jordan Bell is a big, strong physical athlete in the paint. Dylan Ennis is a veteran guard that can do a lot of the same things that Payton Pritchard, a talented freshman, can do.
But those guys are all good role players. In other words, Oregon can win the Pac-12 and get to a Final Four with them. They aren’t getting there riding them. Brooks and Boucher are the horses that are going to lead this program, particularly Brooks. Oregon is a totally different team now that he’s back and playing at the level he played at tonight.
That’s stating the obvious, I know, but it’s still a point worth making: Wednesday was the first time all season long that we got a glimpse of the Oregon team that was mentioned with Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and Villanova as the real title favorites two months ago.
2. Tonight aside, Oregon’s shooting is still a concern: Entering Wednesday night, the Ducks were shooting a dismal 31.0 percent from three on the season, good for 292nd out of 351 teams nationally. That’s terrible, but you wouldn’t have known it had you watched the first half against the Bruins. Oregon hit six of their first 11 threes and seven total in the first half before going ice cold. They were 1-for-10 from deep to start the second half and 2-for-14 from beyond the arc before Boucher and Brooks hit threes in the final minute.
Oregon fell in love with the three-ball early in the second half, which is what allowed UCLA to make their run. There’s a reason that coaches refer to three-pointers as ‘Fool’s Gold’, and Oregon pretty much proved it on Wednesday. But they also drove home something that should be a major concern for Duck fans: No team has ever won a national title shooting that poorly from three. UConn won in 2011 shooting 32.9 percent from three when Kemba Walker was Kemba-ing all over March Madness. Kansas won in 1988, three years after the three-pointer was invented, while shooting 31.4 percent from three in a season where Danny Manning and Larry Brown teamed up to cut down the nets as a No. 6 seed.
In other words, Oregon needs to hope that tonight’s 11-for-30 performance from deep wasn’t fool’s gold as much as it is a sign of things to come.
3. These are the two best teams in the Pac-12: This isn’t really debatable, is it?
USC is still undefeated so we need to keep them in the conversation for now, but the Trojans are you and are still without Bennie Boatwright, who is dealing with an MCL injury. And while Arizona has been impressive, they’re grinding out wins while dealing with an impossible number of injuries and suspensions.
For me, these are clearly the two best teams in the conference, and while tonight proved it in spectacularly entertaining fashion, it was disappointing in the sense that we’ve already burned through one of their regular season matchups and it’s not even Christmas yet.
4. UCLA is still the favorite to win the league: Oregon, a team that shoots 31.0 percent from beyond the arc on the season, made 11 threes on a Wednesday night where UCLA didn’t start playing well until midway through the second half. One of those threes was a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-6 Lonzo Ball, who played about as good of defense as you can play on Brooks on that possession. That buzzer-beater was a game-winner because Bryce Alford, who entered the night shooting 87 percent from the line with the reputation for being one of the most clutch player in college hoops, missed the front end of a one-and-one.
And all this happened on Oregon’s home court.
This is a great win for the Ducks, one they desperately needed for A) their tournament résumé and B) their chances of taking home an outright Pac-12 regular season title. They’re back to being a Final Four-caliber team.
But UCLA is still the Pac-12’s best team.