Looking ahead: Oregon ready to pursue a national championship

It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Oregon.

After Oregon defeated Duke in the Sweet 16, Mike Krzyzewski spoke with Ducks sophomore star Dillon Brooks as the two teams exchanged handshakes. The ensuing drama, which included a debate about the details of the conversation, ended with an apology from Krzyzewski.

The entire episode seemed unfair to Brooks, Dana Altman and the Oregon program. The Pac-12 champions deserved more praise for their efforts – they beat the Blue Devils by 14 points in their 11th consecutive victory – but instead the team carried the Krzyzewski-Brooks storyline and the questions attached to it into their loss to Oklahoma in the next round.

Lost in that fiasco was the promise demonstrated by a young Oregon team that returns ample firepower to compete for the national championship in 2016-17. Oregon is real, deep, athletic, mature, balanced and confident.

The key players from a squad that thumped Utah by 31 points in the Pac-12 tournament final before defeating Holy Cross, Saint Joseph’s and Duke prior its Elite Eight loss are back.

Brooks and freshman Tyler Dorsey tested the NBA waters after the season. Both decisions made sense. Brooks dropped 22 points on Duke in the Sweet 16, and Dorsey excelled throughout the year.

But both players decided to withdraw from the NBA draft prior to the May 25 deadline. And those decisions prompted’s Eamonn Brennan to list Oregon in the No. 7 slot of his revised Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings.

Sure, the program lost Dwayne Benjamin and Elgin Cook. But four of the five starters from last year’s run return. That crew includes Brooks, who will enter 2016-17 as the favorite to win Pac-12 player of the year honors. He led last season’s selfless squad with 16.7 points per game. He also averaged 5.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals, and connected on 81 percent of his free throws.

More consistency from the 3-point line (33.8 percent) and fewer turnovers (three against Oklahoma in the Elite Eight) would boost Brooks’ pro prospects and his team’s shot at the crown.

He’ll have help.

Dorsey, who made 41 percent of his 3-pointers last season, is back. Chris Boucher, a 6-foot-10, 200-pound human battery, finished ninth in block percentage per His energy and growth down the stretch helped Oregon on both ends of the floor. He’s more than an elite athlete. That much he proved in March.

Jordan Bell, Casey Benson, Roman Sorkin and Kendall Small return, too. Dylan Ennis, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is seeking a sixth year of eligibility.

That’s just the current roster. This summer, Altman will add a potent recruiting class to the mix, too. Junior college star Kavell Bigby-Williams, a 6-10 forward, was named Spalding’s NJCAA Division I player of the year last season. Payton Pritchard, a point guard ranked 54th in the 2016 ESPN100, along with three-star prospects Michael Cage Jr. and Keith Smith will help, too.

Oregon, again, will field an athletic squad with the length, depth and talent to carry the program to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., in 2017.

An exhibition trip to Spain in late August could help the squad attain early momentum and cohesion in the race for next year’s national title. That’s assuming the entire roster competes in those matchups. Brooks and Boucher are expected to try out for the Canadian national team. Same goes for Dorsey with Greece’s squad.

If those players make their national teams, Altman might limit their participation in Spain.

“We’re a month and a half into the offseason and it’s six months long,” Altman told the Eugene Register-Guard this week. “I hope they continue to make progress. The trip to Spain will be big for us. We have some young men in national competitions and hopefully the Olympics, so that will be exciting.”

And that excitement could end with the school’s first trip to the Final Four since it won the national title in 1939.

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