You knew the streak would end at some point.
The Oregon Ducks had won nine games in a row, including their first seven Pac-12 contests, blazing to the top of the conference standings, and into the AP Top 10 for the first time since Aaron Brooks and Tajuan Porter were hitting threes under the guidance of head coach Ernie Kent at McArthur Court.
Oregon's charge back to basketball relevance in January was as fun as it was surprising. Dana Altman's Ducks were walking on water, and we were all wondering when the bubble would pop and Oregon's first conference loss would come. Well, the bubble exploded last night in Palo Alto, where a flat Ducks team was catapulted off their undefeated pedestal by an inspired Stanford team in a game that harkened back to the two schools' football contest last year. Oregon is no longer undefeated. That storyline, that distraction, is out of the way. Now the Ducks can move on with their season, and move into, what should, a March to remember for Oregon basketball.
Make no mistake: Oregon got whipped by the Cardinal last night. The Ducks miss freshman point guard Dominique Artis, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Without Artis, who helmed the Ducks on top in key situations this year, Oregon looked toothless attacking from the guard position, and with Damyean Dotson and EJ Singler struggling at Maples Pavilion, a lack of punch was exposed. But the Stanford loss was a game that had to happen. The Ducks had to sustain a kick in the rear, face some adversity, and get up off the mat. This Oregon team wasn't good enough to go through an entire year on cloud nine. Better get that tough loss out of the way now then down the road when it would cost more than a few ranking positions.
Now it's time for Oregon to lock in. The Ducks lead the conference by one game over Arizona, with 10 Pac-12 regular season games remaining, but unbelievably, Oregon doesn't have to play their three top conference competitors - UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State - again the entire year. That's right: Of Oregon's 10 remaining games, six contests are against the four bottom teams in the conference, and the best team the Ducks face is Washington, who Oregon ran all over - without Artis - at Matthew Knight Arena last weekend. What I'm saying is, this team shouldn't lose again. The Ducks should wrap up the #1 seed for the conference tournament in Las Vagas with a games to go in the season. Stanford was Oregon's third loss of the regular season. It could be their last.
Even with a soft schedule, however, this Oregon team isn't talented enough to coast threw opponents - which is why getting woken up by Stanford last night was such a good thing. Oregon's last six conference wins were by under 10 points, and the Ducks only conference win that wasn't by single digits - in the first Pac-12 game of the year at Oregon State, came in a game in which the Ducks trailed.
Teams constructed like Oregon is this year don't win games unless they give 100%. Without Artis, a Ducks team already punching above their weight talent wise is brought further back to the pack in terms of players - Dana Altman's biggest accomplishment this year is teaching his team how to play hard, scrappy, selfless basketball, which, combined with clutch play and a certain dose of guile, has driven the Ducks by more talented teams like the Wildcats and Bruins. Take away the scrappiness, and the fight, however, and you have an average team. Ernie Kent got fired because he couldn't compensate for not having great players - he had success when he had big talent, but when he didn't, Oregon would underachieve. Last night, Oregon looked like an Ernie Kent team for the old coach's last years in Eugene, and it's not a model the Ducks, especially Singler, the only player on the team to have played for Kent, want to go back to.
Singler should knows what all the ends of the spectrum of playing basketball for the University of Oregon. In his freshman year, Singler played big minutes for Kent's last Ducks squad - a bunch that were tepid, uninspired, and a bore to watch. It was that season that fan support for Oregon basketball fell off, and even with the new arena, it hasn't been back since.
Singler has started the last two years under Dana Altman, and he's come to lead and represent this Ducks team that is built as much in his image as anyone else's. Singler isn't the most talented player, but he's fundamentally sound, he plays hard, he plays smart, and he knows his own game better than any opponent ever will. It's because of guys like Singler, a rare senior on a top college basketball team, that Oregon is competing this year. The Ducks also have seniors in the front-court, Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazmi and Carlos Emery with poise that only comes from three years of work in college basketball. None of Oregon's senior leaders have ever played in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully, Wednesday night's blowout reminded them how much they want to reach that Promised Land.
Oregon needs success this season. Those seniors don't get another shot. They need to bring fans into the fold at Matthew Knight, which has never come close to equaling the fervor, intensity, or beloved status that Mac Court had. Altman needs his team to make a dent in March this year, to start establishing Oregon as a destination for recruits, not just in football, but in basketball as well. This Ducks team can complete a three-loss season, which would be the best in school history. They could possibly one of the least likely best teams in Pac-12 history. What I'm saying is, it's go time. All the prizes are spread out on the table in front of the Ducks, and they need to grab those wins and run into March with the a low seed and belief that anything is possible as the days tick by in the NCAA Tournament.
Oregon was crushed by Stanford last night. Fine. Forgivable. Understandable. We hit February today. It'll be March before we know it. Where the Ducks are then is entirely up to them.