By Steve Mims
The (Eugene) Register-Guard
EUGENE — Oregon is taking it one tournament at a time.
The Ducks put themselves in solid position to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament by closing out the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. Oregon topped its NCAA resume with a 64-57 win over No. 3 Arizona on Saturday afternoon at Matthew Knight Arena.
“I’m not worried about the NCAA tournament right now,” senior guard Johnathan Loyd said. “I am worried about the Pac-12 tournament. One game at a time.”
The Ducks can erase any doubt about landing a spot on the NCAA bracket by winning the conference tournament as they did last year. Oregon (22-8, 10-8) will face rival Oregon State (16-14, 8-10) in the first round at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“We know if we win, we secure that bid, so that is how we look at it,” senior forward Mike Moser said. “Win the tournament and we are in.”
The Ducks face a tougher task than last year when they finished tied for second in the conference and earned a first-round bye in the tournament. The Ducks finished in a five-way tie for third place this year and missed out on a bye because of the tiebreaker.
Oregon went 1-3 against the other four teams that finished 10-8 in the Pac-12 — Arizona State, Colorado, California and Stanford — to fall to the No. 7 seed and an opening game against the 10th-seeded Beavers.
Oregon State’s hopes of getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990 rest on winning the conference tournament. The Beavers will have to get past Oregon first. They beat the Ducks 80-72 in Corvallis on Jan. 19, starting a run of four wins in five games for OSU that culminated with a 71-67 home triumph over UCLA.
Since beating the Bruins on Feb. 2, however, things have not gone well for the Beavers. They went 3-6 in the second half of the conference schedule, including a 93-83 loss at Oregon on Feb. 16 — the game that started the Ducks on their current tear.
“With seven (straight) wins, we feel pretty good, but it is going to be tougher than last year,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “We will be playing on Wednesday, so we have to play four games instead of three, so the challenge is tougher. But I like our depth. If there is a team that could run four games, we’ve got a shot because of our depth. But again, you have to win the first one, and this league is deep this year.”
The Ducks feel better about their inside depth after Waverly Austin had his best game of the season with a career-high 10 rebounds and five blocked shots last Tuesday against Arizona State. Ben Carter had one of his best outings against Arizona with five points, four rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 13 minutes.
“The exciting thing is, if we can play long enough, we still have a lot more there,” Altman said. “Ben has been stepping up and making plays, Waverly’s performance in the last couple games. … It is exciting because I think we have a lot of guys that can give us some of that. We will have our chance … and hopefully we keep playing well.”
The Ducks started the season 13-0 and finished with seven straight wins. In the middle of those streaks was a stretch during which they lost eight of 10 games.
“Are you glass-half-empty or glass-half-full?” Altman said. “The half-full says we played our tails off and really got it going. The half-empty is, ‘What the heck were we doing for those eight games?’ I screwed a couple of them up. If I am going to ask my players to take responsibility and accountability, I just didn’t have us in the right sets, didn’t get us to execute. The connection wasn’t there, the communication wasn’t there, and that is disappointing as a coach.”
The Ducks suffered four two-point losses during that stretch, including their last two losses of the regular season at Arizona and Arizona State when Oregon lost a lead in the last couple minutes of both games. After the ASU loss, Moser said the Ducks stayed confident and talked about how they needed to win the rest of their games, but Altman knows there was a chance his team’s confidence could have gone the other way.
“A lot of guys would have quit,” Altman said. “ ‘Coach doesn’t know what he’s doing. This is not working. We’re playing the wrong guys.’ A lot of guys would have just lost faith, but these guys didn’t. They stayed together and that talks about the character in the room. We worked through some deficiencies we had and are playing better basketball.”
Loyd said the Ducks knew they had too much potential to give up on the season when they were in 10th place in the conference at 3-8 and well outside the NCAA tournament bubble.
“We were still playing for a lot, (because) the season was obviously not over,” Loyd said. “We could still make something happen, so it didn’t make any sense to fold it. We were too talented, had too many weapons. We had to iron some things out and that is what we are doing.”
Oregon was the only team in the Pac-12 that won both of its games on the final weekend and now the Ducks head to Las Vegas to try to defend their title.
“We know for sure we can go down there and do it again,” said Loyd, a Las Vegas native who was the most valuable player of last year’s Pac-12 tournament. “We have all the weapons, a lot of depth. We have to win four games in four days, but it is definitely possible for us to do that.”