Oregon spent the better part of four months building a body of work worthy of consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The final 48 hours before Selection Sunday sent the Ducks on a tougher path.
Oregon will begin tournament play at 11 a.m. Friday in Sacramento as the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region. The Ducks’ first-round opponent will be the 14th-seeded Iona Gaels (22-12), who earned an automatic berth by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
If the Ducks advance beyond the first weekend, they would play a regional semifinal in Kansas City, Mo., where the favorites will include No. 1 seed Kansas and No. 2 seed Louisville.
This wasn’t the draw Oregon envisioned after beating California in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament Friday night. That victory came with a price. Forward Chris Boucher was diagnosed with a torn ACL the next morning. A loss to Arizona in the conference title game Saturday night likely knocked the Ducks out of the West Region, costing them a chance to play closer to home in San Jose, Calif., if they advance past the first weekend.
The Ducks didn’t display any outward disappointment about their seeding, but the mood was admittedly subdued when the team gathered to see the bracket unveiled.
“The guys are caring guys, and they care about Chris,” coach Dana Altman said. “It’s hard to be really excited when you know he’s down.”
The Ducks will be a different team without Boucher, who averaged 11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and a team-high 2.5 blocks off the bench. The selection committee took that into account in slotting Arizona as the No. 2 seed in the West and sending Oregon to the Midwest as a No. 3.
“That was a consideration,” committee chairman Mark Hollis said on CBS. “That was on the table, as most injuries are.”
The effect of Boucher’s injury on Oregon’s seeding wasn’t Altman’s primary concern.
“I’m more worried about how losing Chris affects our team,” he said. “I have to admit, when I got the call, it stung. I felt really bad for Chris.
“He’s such a good guy and has been so much fun to work with the last two years. He’s probably the most popular guy on our team because he’s the first guy to pick everybody up.”
Boucher’s injury was a psychological blow as well as a loss on the court, forcing the Ducks to reconfigure a rotation that had gone only seven deep. In light of that, Altman was happy to open tournament play on Friday instead of Thursday, which will allow the Ducks an extra day to adjust.
“I think that’s a break for us,” Altman said. “It gives us one extra day to put some things together. With Chris not with us, we’ve got to change a few things.”
Oregon’s draw included some potential second-round intrigue in a matchup with Creighton, Altman’s former school. The Bluejays, seeded sixth, will face No. 11 seed Rhode Island in the opening round.
The stakes would be a bit higher than in 2011, when the Ducks played Creighton in the finals of the CBI. Altman didn’t want to look too far ahead, but the potential reunion was difficult to ignore.
“I wish they weren’t there,” said Altman, who coached 16 seasons at Creighton. “I wish they were somewhere else, I’ve got to admit that. But hopefully we’ll both be playing. I will be cheering for them in the first round because I do want them to advance.”
Getting past Iona will be Oregon’s more pressing concern. The Gaels finished fourth in the MAAC regular season at 12-8 but earned an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.
Jordan Washington, a 6-foot-7 senior, leads the team with 17.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. The Gaels shoot nearly 40 percent from three-point range, which ranks near the top of Division I, and average 80 points per game.
“We haven’t seen much of Iona, but I know these guys are going to be begging for their film to watch them play,” forward Dillon Brooks said. “We’re not looking over at the other side. We’re just focusing on one game at a time.”
Fans, meanwhile, will look ahead and see some potentially daunting matchups. If seedings hold, the Ducks would face No. 2 seed Louisville in the regional semifinals in Kansas City. Survive that, and they could end up playing top-seeded Kansas in the Jayhawks’ backyard.
That’s a more circuitous path to the Final Four than the Ducks envisioned a few days ago, when they appeared to have the inside track for a spot in the West Region. Now that the seedings are set, they can only play the hand they’ve been dealt.
“Three, two, 10 — it didn’t matter,” Brooks said. “We’re a bunch of competitors and we’re ready for any team in front of us.”
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