SAN JOSE, Calif. — An accident is partly responsible for the 12th-seeded Oregon Ducks riding an eight-game winning streak into its matchup against the fifth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It might look like an act of genius that Oregon coach Dana Altman went with a new starting lineup featuring four 6-foot-9 players before his team’s winning streak commenced.
“Well, it was an accident,’’ he said Thursday.
Here, Altman explained, is how it happened:
On Feb. 21, the Ducks had just lost to USC, 66-49, in Los Angeles, dropped to 15-11 and looked like a longshot to make the NCAA tournament.
“We played a really bad ball game, and we were in the locker room afterwards, and I lost my composure a little bit,’’ Altman said. “And the one guy in the locker room who at that time was by far the most unselfish, all about the team, was Francis Okoro.
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“And like I said, I was upset with them, and I just said, ‘I’ll know who’s starting against UCLA on Saturday night, except for him.’”
Into the starting lineup went Okoro, a 6-9 freshman from Nigeria, out went 6-5 guard Will Richardson and upward went the Ducks.
After a 90-83 loss to UCLA, Oregon won eight in a row and secured an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament after winning the Pac-12 tournament. And won it with a lineup where 6-foot-1 guard Payton Prichard is the only player who does not stand 6-9.
During the winning streak, Okoro has averaged 5.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
“All that credit goes to Francis,’’ Altman said, noting that Okoro reclassified as a high school junior to start his college career early. “…Could be a senior in high school and came in and has tried to give us leadership, has been really all about the team and really trying to help us in any way he can.’’
Said Okoro of his role, “Just bringing energy to the locker room, just bringing energy to the guys in practice. Telling guys we got to go. Telling guys we’ve got to pick it up.’’
But the Ducks probably will need all of their energy to beat the Wisconsin Badgers, led by 6-10 senior Ethan Happ, who is averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
“A lot of the offense runs through him,’’ said Pritchard, Oregon’s starting point guard. “But I mean, it’s just like any other talented player on each team.
“We gotta hold him, gotta make his touches hard. We gotta force him into tough positions, and then we can’t allow him to have easy assists, low kickouts. He gets the ball out fast out of the post.’’