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Top 25 Countdown: No. 5 Oregon

A role reversal has emerged this year in Oregon athletics. Ducks football is not dominating the Pac-12 Conference, but men’s basketball is expected to do just that.

Dana Altman has had an unprecedented level of success as the men’s basketball coach in Eugene, and if things break the way most expect them to, Oregon stands on the verge of something truly special.

Oregon is a top-10 team in all of the preseason polls, with the Ducks coming in the top 5 in some. Lindy’s Magazine even named them their No. 1 team in the nation for the first time ever.

High expectations exist for several very good reasons.

The Ducks are coming off a season in which they went 31-7 and were one win away from the Final Four before losing to a hot Oklahoma team, 80-68, in the West Regional Final. The Sooners boasted one of the best players in the country, Buddy Hield, who was probably the best player Oregon faced not only in that season, but several seasons. The eventual first-round draft pick scored 37 points to end the Ducks’ magical run.

Perhaps the loss was a blessing in disguise: The Ducks learned what it takes to reach a Final Four. Many of the players who absorbed that Elite Eight loss are still around to apply that lesson. One is a Buddy Hield-type player who can put the Ducks on the winning side of the Elite Eight divide next March.

12 March 2016: Oregon head coach Dana Altman talks with Oregon (24) Dillon Brooks during the  PAC-12 Tournament championship game between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Oregon defeated Utah 88-57.  (Photo by Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire.)

12 March 2016: Oregon head coach Dana Altman talks with Oregon (24) Dillon Brooks during the PAC-12 Tournament championship game between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Oregon defeated Utah 88-57. (Photo by Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire.)

Junior Dillon Brooks is expected to compete not only for the Pac-12 Player of the Year Award, but the National Player of the Year Award. Brooks tested the NBA waters, and although he was possibly a late-first rounder, he decided the best thing for him was to come back to Eugene and work on his game even more. If Brooks displays the kind of improvement he enjoyed from his freshman to sophomore years, he will be a leading candidate for every postseason award.

Brooks had a breakout season in 2015-’16, leading the team with 16.7 points and 3.3 assists per game while averaging 5.4 rebounds as well. He also improved his shooting by knocking in 47 percent of his shots and 34 percent beyond the arc. Just as important, Brooks turned into an on-court leader for a team that was thought to be missing “Mr. Everything” Joe Young from a year before.

As with most championship teams, Oregon is far from a one-man show. The Ducks are deep with talent and experience at every position on the floor.

Shooting guard Tyler Dorsey, who also briefly inquired about his NBA stock, is hoping to break out this season, but the 6-foot-4 guard’s freshman year wasn’t too shabby. Dorsey averaged 13.4 points a game and led the team with 67 three-pointers made.

Dorsey is expected to play a huge role in the early part of the season, because Brooks will be unavailable as he heals an injured foot. Oregon needs the sophomore shooting guard to make the level of improvement Brooks did from Year 1 to Year 2.

Casey Benson also came into his own last season, and he might have been the Ducks’ most improved player and the guy that is the glue to the entire team. Before last season, it was assumed Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis would be the starting point guard, but Ennis’s foot injury never completely healed, leaving the job to Benson, and he flourished.

The then-sophomore averaged just six points and 3.2 assists per game, but on a team with as many shooters as Oregon has, the point guard doesn’t need to be a scorer. All he needs to do is not foul things up, and Benson never did. He turned the ball over just 16 times for the entire season. Ennis is healthy now. With him and Benson, the Ducks are strong at the point, as they are with every position on the floor.

Altman brought in a recruiting class that included Payton Pritchard, the Oregon State Player of the Year out of West Linn. He will spell Benson, Ennis or Dorsey when needed.

Oregon returns senior center Chris Boucher, along with junior forward Jordan Bell, to round out the Ducks’ starting five.

Boucher broke the Oregon record in blocked shots for a season with 110. Bell is also a rim protector with his 53 blocks last season in just 30 games.

They’ll have help, too.

M.J. Cage, a 6-foot-10 forward from Santa Ana, California, and the son of former Seattle Supersonic Michael Cage, is also supposed to be a shot-blocker with an offensive game opposing big men must respect.

Six-foot-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams from London will also fight for playing time, only increasing this team’s depth. He was named the junior college player of the year last season when he averaged nearly 17 points and 14 rebounds per game.

Any team that is able to get the ball to the rim on a consistent basis against Oregon will definitely have to earn it. Opponents will have to hit a lot of perimeter shots if they want to beat this Ducks team.

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Oregon men’s basketball has never shouldered so many expectations. For the first time ever, the media that covers the conference selected the Ducks as the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12. They do have a tough schedule, which should help their RPI in March. The experience this team gained last season by advancing to the Elite Eight will be highly beneficial. They won’t be overwhelmed by anything, because they have the talent to make the Final Four for the first time since the first Final Four, in 1939.

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