This year’s Sweet 16 is nearly Splenda-free, the next two days of NCAA tournament games almost devoid of imitators.
All but one survivor is seeded fifth or better, a tribute to the organizers of the event and a blow to the fanciers of Cinderella.
Then there are the Oregon Ducks, an oddball No. 12 seed from the Pac-12, a bunch at one time so derailed that its point guard, the one player entrusted to guide the group, had given up on the season.
“I want to say I believed that we could make something happen, but, honestly, I probably didn’t,” junior Payton Pritchard said. “I was looking at it more like, ‘We got four games left. Let’s just have fun with it.’ ”
That was barely four weeks ago, after Oregon went 0 for L.A., losing to USC in a hailstorm of missed shots and to UCLA when the Bruins scored 62 points in the second half.
The Ducks were 15-12 overall and had a losing record (6-8) in a conference that was being ridiculed for its general ineptitude.
“I was talking to my family back then and I was pretty upset with myself,” Pritchard said. “I felt like I wasted a year of not giving it everything I got. I just decided to try to make the most of what was left.”
The Ducks are 10-0 since that Saturday night loss at Pauley Pavilion. Their streak includes NCAA tournament defeats of Wisconsin and UC Irvine, the latter coming when they went from trailing by a point with 14 minutes left to winning by 19.
“They’re real,” Anteaters coach Russell Turner said. “There’s not any question about that. … They’re a problem to play against because they’re unusual. And with Payton Pritchard playing at the level he’s playing, they’re going to be a tough out.”
Unusual? Oregon starts four players listed at 6 feet 9, their length the type typically reserved for the NBA. Against Irvine, forward Kenny Wooten blocked seven shots.
The fifth starter is the 6-2 Pritchard, the Oregon native who has elevated his game to stand among his taller teammates.
During the Ducks’ 10-0 run, he has averaged 16.3 points on 48.4% shooting with 54 assists and 19 turnovers, seven of which came in one game.
“We’ve really been behind him on this ride,” Wooten said. “He’s been taking us in the direction we need to go. We’ve just been following with him.”
Against Irvine, Pritchard repeatedly hit key shots, including a few that came with degrees of difficulty worthy of Olympic diving.
When the Anteaters scored the first 14 points of the second half to go up 37-35, Pritchard steadied the Ducks, assisting on consecutive baskets and then scoring eight points in four minutes.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I mean, he went through a stretch there [during the season] where he struggled a little bit. [But] his aggressiveness, offensively and defensively. His leadership, toughness. He’s just been on another level here.”
So, what, exactly happened to Pritchard and the Ducks after that empty trip to Los Angeles?
The team’s defense also has been a factor. Remember those 62 points UCLA scored in the second half? The Ducks have surrendered that many in only one full game since.
Pritchard said the change of fortune resulted also from a change of attitude, with Oregon’s players playing like there was nothing to lose.
“People weren’t getting along,” he said. “People were putting a lot of pressure on themselves. I was putting pressure on myself because I wanted to have such a great year.
“So we just started playing to win instead of worrying about the rankings or what people thought of us. Nothing mattered at that point. We all relaxed and just started having fun. There was nothing on the line necessarily.”
The idea was so simple that it succeeded. And now the Ducks have played themselves into a position where everything is on the line, Thursday against Virginia in Louisville, Ky.
The Cavaliers are seeded No. 1 in the South Regional and No. 2 overall, 46 spots ahead of Oregon.
They’ve lost only three times and two of those came against Duke, the tournament’s top seed.
The Ducks will need even more from Pritchard now, which might seem like asking a lot, were he not already asking himself for more.
“This is where I should be,” he said. “This is how I should be playing. Hopefully, I can take this to another level. That’s what I expect out of myself.”