Ducks Insider: Rebuilding a Final Four squad

The Ducks return just one starter, sophomore guard Payton Pritchard, and will rely heavily on transfers and an elite group of freshmen

EUGENE — The Oregon men’s basketball team enjoyed its best success in 78 years last season, but now the rebuilding begins.

In the spring, the Ducks advanced to the Final Four for the first time since winning the national title in 1939. After winning four NCAA tournament games, including victories against big-name programs Michigan and Kansas, Oregon lost in the national semifinals, 77-76, to eventual champion North Carolina.

Three of their stars — forwards Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks, and guard Tyler Dorsey — were selected in the NBA Draft.

Bell was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, then traded to the Golden State Warriors. Brooks was drafted by the Houston Rockets and traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Dorsey was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.

Oregon also lost guard Dylan Ennis and center Chris Boucher, both seniors who are out of eligibility, and saw junior guard Casey Benson and junior forward Kavell Bigby-Williams transfer out of the program.

What’s left is one returning starter — sophomore guard Payton Pritchard, who played high school basketball at West Linn. Oregon returns two other players who competed in the NCAA tournament last season — forwards Keith Smith and Roman Sorkin — although they had limited roles.

With Oregon opening its season at 9 p.m. Friday against Coppin State, coach Dana Altman still is weeks away from having a solidified starting lineup. Expect the Ducks to try a variety of combinations and rotations early this season until every player’s role is determined.

“It’s kind of hard (playing together for the first time)," freshman forward Troy Brown said. "But I feel like we have better team chemistry, just because we get along with each other off the court. So, on the court, it makes it so much easier.”

Altman expects the early part of the season to be "a work in progress through November and December. I don’t think we’ll have anything etched in stone until probably January, maybe late December. We’ve got potential, but we’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do."

Oregon has made it to the NCAA tournament in each of the past five seasons, which is a school record, and the Ducks have won two consecutive Pac-12 championships.

The Ducks open Pac-12 play at 7 p.m. Dec. 29 against Utah at Matthew Knight Arena.

Here are three key questions facing Oregon as the season begins:

Three key questions about the Ducks

1. What role can we expect from Payton Pritchard? Pritchard is the only returning starter from last season, when he led the Ducks with 3.6 assists per game and was sixth in scoring at 7.4 points per game.

But with Oregon’s top five scorers from last season no longer on the team, could Pritchard turn into more of a scorer, rather than a distributor? He had 25 points last week in an exhibition against Northwest Christian.

“Because of his experience, we want him to score more than he did a year ago, so he’ll take more shots and be more aggressive offensively than he was a year ago,” Altman said. “I think we can have a good offensive team if we make shots for each other.”

The Ducks might not need Pritchard to distribute the ball, as Troy Brown had nine assists in the exhibition against Northwest Christian, and senior transfer Elijah Brown had six.

“That’s something that makes me happy, seeing my teammates get buckets,” Troy Brown said. “Hopefully I can keep on being aggressive and making plays for my teammates.”

2. With Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher gone, who will fill the defensive void? Bell and Boucher combined for 167 blocks last season, which averages to 4.3 per game. That interior defense was a big reason for the Ducks’ success.

This year’s team likely won’t have two guys who can put up those type of numbers, but freshman Kenny Wooten has already shown in two exhibition games that he has the ability to block shots.

Wooten, 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, had three blocks each in the Ducks’ exhibition games against Idaho and Northwest Christian. In high school, he had 10 blocks for Manteca High School in the California Interscholastic Federation State Division III title game.

“I think he can really contest shots,” Altman said. “He doesn’t have the timing or the feel that Chris and Jordan did a year ago, but I think that can come.”

3. Who are all these freshmen? Oregon has five true freshmen on the roster — Wooten, Troy Brown, Victor Bailey Jr., Abu Kigab and Will Johnson.

Brown, who was a five-star recruit, is the highest rated freshman on the team, and both Bailey and Wooten are four-star talents.

Oregon’s freshman class ranked No. 12 nationally and No. 3 in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.com.

“They’ve been fun to work with, and I hope they keep that attitude,” Altman said. “There’s no questioning that their God-given abilities are pretty good.”

Oregon Ducks 2017-18 roster

Returners

Payton Pritchard (#3, So., guard, 6-2, 200): Pritchard, from West Linn High School, started last season as a true freshman. He averaged 7.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season.

Keith Smith (#11, So., forward, 6-7, 205): Smith is from Seattle, and although he missed time last season with injuries, he ended up contributing off the bench during the NCAA tournament. In 27 games, he averaged 1.9 points, 1.0 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game.

Roman Sorkin (#41, Sr., forward, 6-10, 225): Sorkin is from Ashdod, Israel, and this is his fourth year in the program. During his first three seasons as a bench player, he averaged 2.4 points, 1.4 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game.

M.J. Cage (#4, R-Fr., forward, 6-10, 225): Cage was a three-star recruit in 2016 out of Santa Ana, California. He spent last season in the Oregon program as a redshirt. He recently spent some time away from the team as he considered transferring, but he returned to the program this week. 

Paul White (#13, R-Jr., forward, 6-9, 235): White spent last season in the Oregon program, but he had to sit out the entire season as a transfer, per NCAA rules. White, from Chicago, came to Oregon from Georgetown, where he played 33 games as a freshman, but missed most of his sophomore year with an abdominal injury.

Evan Gross (#21, R-Sr., guard, 5-10, 165): Gross is a walk-on from Sacramento, California, who played in two games last season for the Ducks.

Transfers

Elijah Brown (#5, Sr., guard, 6-4, 200): Before coming to Oregon, Brown played at both New Mexico and Butler. Last season at New Mexico, Brown averaged 18.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. In high school, Brown played two seasons in Cleveland and two seasons in Los Angeles.

MiKyle McIntosh (#22, R-Sr., forward, 6-7, 240): Before coming to Oregon, McIntosh played at Illinois State, where he averaged 12.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season. He is from Pickering, Ontario, Canada.

New recruits

Troy Brown (#0, Fr., forward, 6-7, 215): Brown is a five-star recruit from Las Vegas. He had 12 points and seven rebounds in the McDonald’s All-America Game.

Victor Bailey Jr. (#10, Fr., guard, 6-4, 185): Bailey is a four-star recruit from Austin, Texas. His parents are former NFL wide receiver Victor Bailey and Olympic medalist Tonja Buford-Bailey.

Kenny Wooten (#1, Fr., forward, 6-9, 220): Wooten is a four-star recruit from Manteca, California. He was the 29th-rated power forward in the country, according to 247Sports.com.

Abu Kigab (#24, Fr., forward, 6-6, 215): Kigab is a three-star recruit from St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, but transferred and finished high school in Napa, California. He helped Canada’s U19 team win the World Cup gold medal.

Will Johnson (#54, Fr., forward, 6-1, 180): Johnson is a walk-on from Pacific Palisades, California. His family has a rich college basketball history, with his father, Kris Johnson, winning a national title at UCLA in 1995. His grandfather, Marques Johnson, also won a national title at UCLA in 1975.

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