EUGENE — When asked about the team’s goal on Selection Sunday, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks was direct.
“National championship,” the Pac-12 Player of the Year said.
That objective seemed more realistic a week ago, but after losing center Chris Boucher, the national title mountain looks awfully steep.
Boucher’s knee injury, which he suffered in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals against Cal, changes how we view the Ducks as they enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region.
Oregon has been dominant this season on its way to a 29-5 overall record, including 16-2 in the Pac-12, which set a program record and earned the Ducks their second consecutive regular season conference championship.
And trust me, teams still fear Oregon.
“It hurt us, but we’re going to use it as motivation going forward into this tournament,” Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey said about Boucher’s injury.
But one of the things that made this Oregon team so dangerous was the combo of Bell and Boucher, two of the best shot-blockers in the nation. Combined, the two averaged 4.7 blocks per game.
That rare dynamic of having two prolific defenders under the basket is now gone, and with it, likely the Ducks’ chances of reaching the Final Four.
Oregon opens the tournament at 11 a.m. Friday in Sacramento against No. 14 seeded Iona, which poses no threat. After that, the Ducks face the winner of Creighton-Rhode Island. No real threat there either.
But beginning with the Sweet 16, the Ducks have many possible roadblocks to the Final Four, whether it be possibly No. 2 seed Louisville or red-hot Michigan in the Sweet 16, or possibly No. 1 seed Kansas looming in the Elite Eight.
Without Boucher, the margin of error for Oregon is razor thin.
Brooks, Bell and Dorsey are big-time players, and they’ll have enough to carry the Ducks to another run to the Elite Eight, but that’s as far as it will go.
What’s fun about the NCAA tournament, though, is that so many predictions, like mine, can be obliterated on the first day.
All part of the madness.
“We’re competitors, we’re confident in ourselves,” Brooks said. “Wherever we were at, we’re ready to play. We’re ready to go and make something happen.”