The Oregon Ducks are coming to McKale Center on Saturday, which means it’s time for a little history lesson.
Ancient history. Like, two years ago.
Only one Oregon player who helped the Ducks snap the UA’s 49-game home-court winning streak on Jan. 28, 2016, remains on their roster today, and that was reserve forward Roman Sorkin, who had only two points in 10 minutes.
Arizona has only two players left who contributed: point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and forward Dusan Ristic, both of whom came off the bench. Guard Allonzo Trier was on the roster but was still recovering from a broken wrist he suffered three weeks earlier at USC.
Of the 10 starters in that game, two are now in the NBA, two are in the G-League, five are overseas and one remains in college basketball but not at either school: Guard Casey Benson transferred last spring from Oregon to Grand Canyon, where his brother is an assistant coach.
Consider also the last time the teams met, just 10 months ago in the Pac-12 Tournament. Arizona has five remaining players from its 83-80 title-game win, but Oregon has just two: starting guard Payton Pritchard and reserve forward Keith Smith. Sorkin did not play in the title game.
Among Arizona’s departures after that game were two guys who came off the bench and still had five years of college eligibility remaining between them: guard Kobi Simmons and forward Chance Comanche, who are now teammates on the G-League’s Memphis Hustle.
Even for a guy like UA coach Sean Miller, who speaks often about how fluid the nature of college basketball is these days, all that can be dizzying.
“I think about it today — Lauri Markkanen has the opportunity to make more 3-point shots (for the Chicago Bulls this season) than any rookie that’s ever played in the NBA. That’s a pretty good stat,” Miller said of his forward standout from last season. “It’d be nice to have him with us.
“Kobi Simmons was a really, really talented player. I think he’ll be an NBA player. He’s taking a different path but his talent is unquestioned. Chance, a guy who didn’t start, a lot of teams would have loved to have Chance a year ago, and he would have started. And Kadeem Allen, his ability to lead and defend is unmatched.
“No doubt those four guys left us, and Oregon, heck, they lost even more guys. But you have to be able to do that in college basketball and be ready to go the next year.”
The Ducks certainly were ready. Even though they lost six of their seven top contributors from last season — all but Pritchard — Oregon coach Dana Altman reloaded with a pair of grad transfers (ex-New Mexico guard Elijah Brown and former Illinois State forward Mikyle McIntosh) plus a five-star freshman wing in Troy Brown, among others.
So far, the Ducks are making it work. While they don’t look quite like the Final Four team they were a year ago, or even a projected NCAA Tournament team at this point, Oregon has won seven of its last nine games, including a 76-72 win at ASU on Thursday.
“I hope they get a feel for what they’re capable of doing now,” Altman said after Thursday’s game; coaches and players from both teams were not made available for interviews Friday. “That is, great camaraderie, great communication on the defense of end which took away a lot of their transition baskets and we outrebounded them. Those are all things that are critical for us to have a chance on the road.”
In a way, the Ducks’ resurgence is really not much of a surprise.
Likely in part because of their incoming talent, and Altman’s reputation for getting the most from his rosters, the Ducks were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 media poll this season despite all their losses.
“They have one of the best coaches in the country,” Miller said Thursday. “They have a great confidence about them. This is a younger group, a younger team, so instead of us facing maybe a blend of upperclassmen, they have maybe more faces based on how much they lost from a year ago.
“But they’re only going to get better as time moves on.”
Altman may have seen it coming, too. Never one to overly hype his players, Altman expressed some quiet confidence in his group during an interview with Blue Ribbon Yearbook in September, after all his offseason recruiting was finally finished.
“We’ll be a different team, and we’ll have a different look,” Altman said. “We might be a little ugly early and not sure what we want to do, but I think we can become a good team.”
The Ducks may be one already. They — and the Wildcats — could find out for sure Saturday.