Payton Pritchard wants Oregon to dominate from the start this year.
The Ducks are No. 15 in the AP preseason men’s basketball poll. They were ranked at the start of last season, too, but before their surprising run in the NCAA Tournament they had a number of early losses that dropped the team out of the Top 25. They finished 25-13 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-12. This season, the Ducks do not want to be a surprise.
“We’re really motivated for this year because I felt like last year, I guess my last two seasons, my sophomore and junior seasons, we played down in the regular season,” Pritchard said. “Definitely didn’t play how we wanted to and finish how we wanted to, so we’re looking forward to the beginning of this season. We want to make a statement and change the narrative of how it’s been lately.”
Oregon rebounded last season by winning the Pac-12 tournament for an NCAA berth, then defeated Wisconsin and UC Irvine as a No. 12 seed before falling to eventual champion Virginia in the Sweet 16.
This season the Ducks were selected to win the Pac-12 title in the preseason media poll. But they will have a decidedly new look.
Oregon returns just three scholarship players from last season’s team: Pritchard, Will Richardson and Francis Okoro. Starters Kenny Wooten, Paul White and Louis King have all moved on.
Oregon landed some high-profile prospects with a recruiting class considered among the top five nationally, including 6-foot-11 center N’Faly Dante from Kansas and 6-foot-9 power forward C.J. Walker from Florida. Also joining the Ducks is national junior college player of the year Chris Duarte. Shakur Juiston and Anthony Mathis are graduate transfers.
The newcomers will work around Pritchard, who averaged 12.9 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds last year and was named the Pac-12 tournament’s most outstanding player.
He went through the NBA draft process after last season but ultimately decided to stay at Oregon for his senior year.
“We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of new players,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman, who is in his 10th season.
“I think they’re talented and are a good group, but we’ve got a lot of new faces to try to blend together and try to get to work together.”
Pritchard is closing in on several Oregon records in his senior season. If all goes well, he should leave the Ducks as the career leader in assists, steals, wins and career games played. With 1,303 career points, he likely will not break Ron Lee’s career record (2,085), but he could surpass Luke Jackson for second place.
“To watch Payton grow over four years, he was our point guard on our Final Four team, and last year really exploded to take us to the Sweet 16,” Altman said. “He’s a talented young man that’s driven. He works very hard at his game. You love players like that.”
Heralded recruit Bol Bol left Oregon after just one season, during which he was limited to just nine games because of a foot injury. The son of the late Manute Bol was a second-round pick in the NBA draft and is currently on a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets.
Louis King played just one season at Oregon as a freshman before declaring for the draft, but he was not selected and is now on a two-way deal with the Detroit Pistons. Kenny Wooten, who was a sophomore last season, also declared and went undrafted. Picked up by the New York Knicks, he was waived before the start of the NBA season.
Waiting is the hardest part
Dante will not be able to play right away because he was not cleared in time by the NCAA after graduating early and reclassifying as a 2019 signee in August. He has said he will enroll for the winter term on Dec. 14, which means he will miss at least nine games. A native of Mali who has a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Dante chose Oregon over Kentucky.
Oregon opens the season at home against Fresno State on Nov. 5. The Ducks play No. 14 Memphis in Portland on Nov. 12 and there is a chance they will meet No. 8 Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas later in the month. The nonconference slate also includes a trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan on Dec. 14. The Ducks open the Pac-12 season on Jan. 2 at Colorado.