Canzano: Oregon Ducks are all-in vs. UCLA
Ducks play vs. No. 1-seed UCLA in semifinal.
LAS VEGAS — I bumped into Dana Altman at a roulette table in Sin City once. This was years ago during the Pac-12 Conference Tournament. Altman’s Oregon Ducks were humming along, playing great basketball. I was walking through the MGM Grand Casino one morning and I saw the coach bellied-up at a table.
Altman wasn’t gambling.
The table wasn’t even open.
He just happened to come upon the empty chairs, stopped, sat down, and relaxed for a few minutes. I walked by and stopped to chat. Altman insisted he wasn’t much of a gambler.
I beg to differ.
Altman’s team will play a high-stakes game on Friday against UCLA. The odds are long. And the task feels tall. But after watching Oregon beat Washington State 75-70 on Thursday, I wonder if Altman has this tournament right where he wants it.
UCLA is better.
It has piles of big-game experience and the better record. It’s well coached. It has Jaime Jaquez Jr., the conference player of the year. But for about 12 wonderful minutes in the first half on Thursday against WSU, Oregon looked capable of knocking anyone in the conference out of the bracket.
The Ducks ran the floor, made shots, and defended relentlessly. They looked athletic, long and focused. Eventually, WSU shot its way back into the game. Altman said he’s kicking himself for not calling a timeout to stop that run, but I left the arena thinking Oregon has a puncher’s chance to beat UCLA.
“It’s a big challenge,” Altman said, “but I think our guys are looking forward to it.”
UCLA is lethal at the end of games. It’s tough-minded and knows how to finish. Twice this season, Oregon thought it had the Bruins beat only to see them come roaring back in the second half.
I asked Altman after the game how he’d spend the next 24 hours. Would he watch film of those games? Talk a walk in the casino? Sit at another roulette table, maybe?
“We’ll try to come up with a better plan and try to execute it a little better,” he said.
Las Vegas is constantly re-inventing itself. There’s a 17,000-seat sphere-shaped concert venue being built at one end of The Strip. In November, Las Vegas traffic will be shut down and they’ll hold a Formula One Grand Prix race through the streets here. We all know casinos are built, demolished, then rebuilt.
Altman has spent a lot of time in the last couple of months trying to re-invent his team. The roster is healthier than it has been for most of the season. In fact, in Friday’s semifinal against UCLA, the Ducks will have 10 scholarship players in uniform, matching the most at any point of the season.
N’Faly Dante crumbled to the floor after a huge blocked shot late in Thursday’s win. He winced, and was helped to the bench. But a few minutes later, during a timeout, Oregon’s center rose to his feet and joined his teammates in the huddle. Then, after the game, I watched Dante walk around the court, smiling, without a limp.
“Dante said he’ll be fine,” said Altman.
Las Vegas can be cruel. You can play every hand of blackjack by the book and still lose. As one of my cab drivers joked: “If you want to leave with a small fortune, come with a large one.” But I keep thinking about the gift Oregon basketball earned for itself this week.
The Ducks have been alternately terrific and terrible this season. The inconsistency has driven fans mad. The injuries have been a drag. The failure to close out opponents has been frustrating. Still, here Oregon is — on the cusp of something big — and with all of us watching.
The Ducks did just enough to earn the No. 4 seed of the conference tournament and a first-round bye. Then on Thursday, they did just enough vs. WSU to advance. And so I’m left wondering if this team has one more “just enough” moment in its season.
UO’s squad hasn’t looked much like an NCAA Tournament team for more than a couple of weeks, here and there, this season. But Oregon doesn’t need to play weeks of good hoops on Friday night. It just needs to win one more game.
Do that, and the Ducks advance to the conference tournament championship. That may be enough for Oregon to slip past the velvet ropes and into the NCAA Tournament.
Dana Altman told me all those years ago he’s not much of a gambler.
The Ducks have it all on one spin now.
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Good luck to the Ducks!
We knew going in WSU is the best three point shooting team in the PAC - and that is the only reason this game got close. Sure, UCLA has more top of the roster talent and heaps of big game experience, so yeah, they are rightly favoured over Oregon. Still, the Ducks are deeper than the Bruins, have two seven-footers to protect the rim and UCLA isn't a great shooting team. They win with defense. Let's lace 'em up and see what happens.