By Rob Moseley
For the second time this season, the Oregon men’s basketball team is about to kick off a two-week stretch against the Los Angeles and Arizona schools by taking on UCLA.
If the Ducks’ NCAA Tournament hopes are to survive the fortnight, this time better go better than the last one.
The Ducks (18-8, 6-8 Pac-12) and Bruins (21-6, 10-4) meet Thursday night in Pauley Pavilion (8:05 p.m. PT, ESPN2). They last met on Jan. 30 in Eugene, with UCLA scoring the final five points to win 70-68, beginning a stretch of three losses in four games for Oregon, with each defeat by just two points.
Those narrow losses deprived the Ducks of the signature victory that would seriously enhance their NCAA Tournament case. They’ll try to remedy that deficiency beginning Thursday.
“At this point, it’s just about playing our hearts out like it’s our last game,” UO junior Joseph Young said.
Oregon was crippled in the first matchup with UCLA by a 13-2 run for the Bruins coming out of halftime. That forced the Ducks to play from behind most of the half, and though they ultimately fought to a 68-65 lead, the energy expenditure might have contributed to several key possessions that went UCLA’s way in the final minute.
“That was a real frustrating game the first time around,” said UO senior Mike Moser, one of three UO starters held scoreless that day. “But I think we’re kind of a changed team, so I’m definitely excited to get down and play them.”
The Ducks have been buoyed by a three-game win streak over the other Northwest schools. That has them back in the thick of the race for an NCAA Tournament bid, though a strong finish to the regular season is also necessary.
That will require coming out ahead Thursday at UCLA, or next week at home against Arizona and/or ASU. And it will mean avoiding an upset by USC on Saturday.
“The guys know what the big picture is,” UO coach Dana Altman said. “I don’t think I need to explain it to them. They’ve been pretty good about (taking) one game at a time.”
Oregon could potentially get an emotional boost Thursday from a return by sophomore wing Damyean Dotson. His streak of 60 straight starts was broken last week following a citation for using a fake ID at a campus bar, and while Altman has been vague about Dotson’s status against the Bruins, he will make the trip and seems to be held in high regard by the head coach.
“He goes to class, his academic record is good, he’s represented our program very well, he does a lot of things off the floor with kids,” Altman said. “He’s just been a very good representative of our program. Comes to practice every day; treats his teammates well. There’s not many negatives there. …
“I give them credit for things they do well, and when they make a mistake, then we take that into account too. But as I mentioned before, Dot has a lot of credit built up, because he’s done a lot of good things the last two years. I really appreciate everything he’s given the program.”
In Dotson’s absence against Washington State on Sunday, senior Jason Calliste moved from his sixth-man role into the starting rotation. The Ducks also relied on JC transfer Jalil Abdul-Bassit to play a few minutes off the bench, filling the void created by Dotson’s absence.
If Dotson returns, Abdul-Bassit will probably be relegated again to being the 11th man in a 10-man rotation. But Altman expressed confidence in Abdul-Bassit should he be needed again
“I don’t know if he’s been able to show it, but he’s really athletic (and) he can shoot it really well,” Moser said. “He’s not that guy where, when he comes in we’re like, ‘Uh oh.’ We have tons of confidence in him.”
All the same, the Ducks would prefer to see Dotson back, said senior guard Johnathan Loyd, who intends Thursday to shed the protective mask he’s worn since breaking his nose a month ago.
“If he’s not there, it messes with the rotation and we have a big weapon missing,” Loyd said.
Given all that’s on the line over the next two weeks, the Ducks want to be as close to full strength as possible for their stretch run.