The Oregon men’s basketball team (24-10, 10-8 Pac-12) has come a long way. Since bringing in Dana Altman from Creighton in 2010, the Ducks have experienced four straight 20-win seasons and two straight NCAA tournaments. And during these past four years, the Ducks have established themselves as a formidable — at times, elite — national team.
But for Altman and his players, this may not be enough.
Oregon, like many teams before them, has reached the crossroads between plateauing as an above average team and becoming a national powerhouse. Whether or not they will be able to cross these roads in the coming years will depend on a few key changes; some of which will be out of their control.
One forgettable second half was all that stood between the Ducks and a second straight trip to the Sweet 16. The Ducks dictated the pace and rhythm of the game against favored No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the first half in the third round of the West Regional and at the break, it looked like they were well on their way to the next round.
“We definitely knew (Wisconsin) was going to make a run,” Mike Moser said following the loss. “I thought we were going to handle it better.”
But they were simply overmatched in the paint when the game slowed down in the second half, a big reason why the Ducks failed to close out the game.
“Our defensive effort was just not good,” Altman said after the loss to the Badgers. “I was proud of the guys for getting back under control, fighting back and taking the lead there, but we just could not get a big rebound there.”
In many ways, this was a reflection of the program as a whole.
Similar to last season when the Ducks fell to the eventual champion Louisville in the Sweet 16, there was an empty feeling that resided — the possibility that they could have done more. For a program that is looking to steadily progress under Altman, there have been a few missing links that have held them back from reaching their full potential.
Recruiting has been Altman’s strong suit, but team chemistry and player development have lacked, especially this season. These two areas will have to improve if the Ducks truly want to take the next step.
With the potential jump to the NBA from junior guard Joseph Young, who led the team in scoring at 18.9 points per game, and the departures of seniors Moser (13.2 points per game) and Jason Calliste (12.7 points per game), the Ducks will need to look elsewhere for veteran leadership. These three players were vital in Oregon’s game-to-game success and it won’t be an easy task replacing them.
This is where Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson come in. Despite struggles that appeared to be caused by a mixture of sophomore slumps and suspensions, the two will be looked at — for better or for worse — to mold into the leaders they were recruited to be. These two have been among the few players that have been on the team for multiple years and they need show it next season.
In addition to team chemistry and player development, the Ducks will also be dealing with their issues in the paint. After losing Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazemi last year, the Ducks struggled to compete down low with opposing big men and that doesn’t look like it will change next season.
This upcoming season, Oregon’s fate in the paint will essentially rest on the shoulders of incoming players. Ray Kasongo, a highly touted 6-foot-9 Canadian, 6-foot-7 Jordan Bell, who’s known as a shot-blocker, and 6-10 Michael Chandler, who transferred from Northwest Florida State, all could provide low post help next season but they are unproven in Pac-12 play. If any one of these three can defend and rebound at a consistent rate, it would be a good first step towards competing at a high level game-in and game-out.
This next season will arguably be the most important for both Altman and the program as a whole in the past five years. There are certain variables that cannot be controlled such as injuries and suspensions, but under the current circumstances, the Ducks will need to execute at their highest level while they still have the personnel. Oregon has made steady improvements, but it’s time they make the leap from bubble team to automatic bid.
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter @HayDayKim