SACRAMENTO — After reaching the Elite Eight last March, the Oregon Ducks entered this season hoping to do two things this program hasn’t done since the very first NCAA tournament in 1939: reach the Final Four — and win a national championship.
And, for much of the year, the Ducks (30-5) looked like a team capable of doing exactly that. They won their second straight Pac-12 regular season title — unprecedented in school history — and appeared headed for a potential No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament. But then came an awkward fall for senior big man Chris Boucher in the Pac-12 semifinals against Cal — a fall that later led to a diagnosis of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the loss of one of the team’s key players for the rest of the season.
Oregon still managed to give Arizona, all it could handle in the Pac-12 tournament championship before losing, and easily dismissed No. 14 seed Iona in its opening game of the NCAA tournament here at Golden 1 Center on Friday afternoon. But as the Ducks prepare for their game against No. 11 Rhode Island (25-9) on Sunday, the question remains: Can this team, without Boucher, repeat its tournament feat from a year ago — or even possibly exceed them?
“Obviously, it’s a big loss,” freshman guard Payton Pritchard said. “Chris Boucher, in my opinion is an all-American-type player. But as far as our team goes everybody has to step up now. We can’t dwell on his injury.
“We’ve got to move on and try to make a run at this so everybody has to fill his role in some way.”
Boucher, who averaged 11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, paired with 6-foot-9 junior big man Jordan Bell to give the Ducks a pair of athletic, shot-blocking bigs to anchor their defense. The two of them were a significant part of Oregon racking up 6.5 blocks per game, a number that ranks second in college basketball.
With Boucher sidelined, the Ducks have been forced to turn to 6-11 junior Kavell Bigby-Williams, a junior college transfer from London with a body that looks cut from granite … but hands that, at least from the limited time he’s seen the court, came from the same material.
Boucher, on the other hand, is a 35 percent three-point shooter (52 percent from the field) and provides a level of athleticism and versatility at both ends. His absence will be something Rhode Island Coach Dan Hurley will try to exploit.
“The element they miss with Chris Boucher is the three-point shooting and obviously that other potentially explosive offensive player,” Hurley said.
The potential impact of Boucher’s loss was even felt in Oregon’s win over Iona on Friday. While the Ducks wound up pulling away and winning by 16, Iona big man Jordan Washington had 22 points and 12 rebounds — including seven offensive boards — and had his way banging around Bell and Oregon’s other bigs in the paint.
And while Rhode Island comes from outside the Power 5 conferences, the Atlantic 10 tournament champions have a roster loaded with veteran players and big bodies. The Rams used that strength to their advantage Friday in beating Creighton, as senior Hassan Martin, in particular, was able to impose his will on Creighton’s slender freshman big, Justin Patton — a potential mid first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
That grinding, physical style is a stark contrast to Iona, which likes to run like Oregon. The Rams will provide a huge test of Oregon’s ability to move through the tournament without Boucher.
“I think Rhode Island will be more of a grind,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. “They’ll push it when they have opportunities.
“Their athleticism is very good. They get out and pressure and are very physical, similar to Arizona in our league … I like their group. I like their depth.”
The Ducks have plenty of depth themselves. They still have Bell and Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, still have Pritchard and Tyler Dorsey, all of whom scored at least 16 points in Friday’s win.
And, if they are going to continue on to the Sweet 16 next weekend in Kansas City, they’ll need all of them to continue to keep the Ducks flying at the same level they were at all season without Boucher.