Oregon Basketball and the Season of New: The Big WinPosted by Rockne Roll on January 17th, 2013
Welcome to Oregon Basketball and The Season of New, a weekly Pac-12 microsite column from Rockne Roll (@raroll). His column will focus on the various issues facing college basketball through the prism of the Oregon Ducks, a program ostensibly on the rise with top-notch facilities and coaching, but still subject to many of the same problems suffered by many of the other high-major programs around the country.
There are games that every player remembers — their highest-scoring game, their last home contest, rivalry games, conference championships, and bad losses. But not every player gets the chance to be part of a big upset win in front of the home fans on national TV. These games are but a blip on the larger college basketball radar, sometimes netting headlines for a day or so, but for the players, the fans, the building and team staffs and everyone else who was there, it is often the memory of a lifetime.
By about halfway through the non-conference season, four power conference teams had gone unscathed through the early season: Arizona, Duke, Indiana, and Michigan. No team has gone undefeated through the regular season since 1976, when Indiana finished the season with a 32-0 record and a national championship, but there’s always hope that another team can do the job, that the stars will align just right. That squad was not Indiana again, as they lost to Butler in overtime near the trail end of the non-conference season. The win put the Bulldogs back into the national spotlight and shattered many predictions that Indiana was a juggernaut. It also elevated the other three unbeaten schools to elite status, the top of the college basketball heap (and polls).
The stars aligned a little differently last weekend, with all three of those teams lost in their first road games of the conference season. Duke was bested by NC State, and Michigan could not finish a comeback at Ohio State. Both Duke and Michigan play in tough conferences, and it was predicted that both would end up losing fairly soon into the conference season anyway, probably on the road. While perhaps not yet living up to ACC-leading expectations, the Wolfpack are still a solid team, and Ohio State has started adapting to life without Jared Sullinger.
Similarly, when Arizona went on the road to face the Oregon Ducks, there were predictions of an upset. The Ducks had won 16 straight on their befuddling home floor, and had shown promise early in the season after knocking off UNLV. Yet they had lost to Cincinnati on a neutral floor, and had been outlasted by UTEP in a triple overtime road letdown. Arizona, on the other hand, had already built a reputation of coming through in the clutch through size, skill, or just dumb luck (ask Colorado about their luck). The stage was set for something special.
For big games like this one, the atmosphere is just a little different. ESPN was in the house, and they brought along Bill Walton, who is still beloved by basketball junkies in Oregon. The Pit Crew, Oregon’s student section, was literally packed to the rafters after an additional 500 student tickets were released. The Ducks debuted a new set of yellow home uniforms with the “Fighting Ducks” logo and new warm-up shirts with “Bend Your Knees,” a favorite saying of head coach Dana Altman, on the front. Press row was packed and everyone knew something big was about to happen, the only question was what.
When the Cats jumped out to an 11-0 lead, it felt like Arizona was going to use this as an opportunity to cement its dominance over the Pac-12. But the “Fighting Ducks” were ready to fight, and they were soon back in the game, even sooner leading and not long after that, firmly in command. Arizona made its attempt at a comeback (in what has become typical Wildcats’ fashion) twice, but an Oregon steal and an Arizona foul led to a four-point deficit with five seconds remaining for the Cats. The desperation buzzer-beater was way off the mark and no one heard it hit the floor. When the lights went on behind the backboard and the clock hit zeros, the building erupted. Like they would at NC State on Saturday, the Oregon faithful rushed the court at Matthew Knight Arena and celebrated right alongside their team.
This was more than just a big win for the Ducks. It was a reestablishment of their identity as a power player in the Pac-12 and as a nationally top-flight basketball program. It reignited a student base that had become enamored with football to the point that basketball was something to think about when the Civil War was at home and somewhat rarely thereafter. This seemed to be more than a one time deal as the students stretched into the top section again three nights later as the Ducks won another close one against Arizona State, undefeated in conference at that point. It’s still a long road for Oregon. The Ducks face UCLA this weekend, and will still see Colorado twice, and winning on the road is never guaranteed. But the upset of Arizona made the Ducks’ goal of going dancing in March that much closer, that much easier to obtain. E.J. Singler, a senior who has been around for all the ups and downs of the last four years in Eugene, put it very simply on the podium in the press room after the win: “This was the biggest win of my career.” Who can disagree with that?