by Rob Moseley
From the front row of Oregon's NCAA Tournament selection show watch party Sunday, sophomore Dominic Artis looked over his shoulder at a teammate a few rows back.
"El," Artis said, invoking the nickname of forward Elgin Cook. "Deuce?"
Cook, with eyes wide and eyebrows raised, nodded several times. Artis was offering Cook use of two tickets to the Ducks' second-round matchup against BYU on Thursday. The game will be played in Cook's hometown of Milwaukee, and within just a few minutes of the announcement, his cell phone had already been inundated with messages from friends and family.
"It's going to be exciting," Cook said. "It's almost going to be like a home game for us. I'm going to get as many people to the game to support us as possible."
Fresh from two days off following their Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to UCLA on Thursday, the Ducks (23-8) were announced as an NCAA Tournament team for the 12th time in school history Sunday.
Once mired in a 3-8 start to conference play that had them on the outside looking in, the Ducks fought their way off the bubble and solidly into the field with an eight-game win streak, ending up as the No. 7 seed in the West Region.
"A month ago it was out of the question," UO senior guard Johnathan Loyd said. "We fought through adversity, we showed great character and we fought back so we could put ourselves in this situation. That made it more sweeter when we saw our name."
They'll get a rematch with 10th-seeded BYU, after beating the Cougars in Eugene in December, 100-96 in overtime. Up next would probably be a meeting with No. 2 seed Wisconsin, which is just over an hour's drive from Milwaukee.
But, UO coach Dana Altman told the Ducks after the pairings were announced, "We've got to focus on one thing: Thursday. There is no Saturday if we don't win Thursday."
The Ducks held their watch party in the Founder's Club of Matthew Knight Arena, with select UO administrators and donors on hand to celebrate. Players were having a casual post-practice meal as the 3 p.m. PT selection show neared. Right at the top of the hour, the Ducks began assembling in front of the TVs, and the tension built as the first few pairings were announced.
Guard Joseph Young, who has never played in the tournament, found a front-row seat. Before the pairings were announced, he predicted a No. 7 seed — correctly, as it turned out — though he and fellow Houston native Damyean Dotson were disappointed at not being sent to San Antonio.
"I just kept believing," Cook said, despite few projections that had Oregon playing in Milwaukee. "It's going to be exciting being able to play at home in front of my friends and family."
Cook said he returns to Milwaukee often, most recently for the holiday break. But he hasn't played there since high school, when he was first-team all-state as a Hamilton High junior in 2010, before an abbreviated senior season.
Like Young, Cook is a transfer who hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament. But the Ducks have six returning players from last year's group that made an Elite Eight run, just the fourth group in UO history to make back-to-back NCAA appearances. Calliste and forward Mike Moser also have tournament experience, prior to transferring to Oregon.
"This is all or nothing," Loyd said. "People are really giving it their all. For somebody not to have experienced that, they don't know. It'll help us to tell them, 'this is what you've got to be ready for.' People will try to take your head off if you get in their way."
Dotson joked that "we could have been a 12 seed; I just wanted to go back home." But he's looking forward to rebounding from a 3-of-15 shooting performance in Oregon's two Pac-12 Tournament games.
"We're just hungry, and we want to play for a long time," Dotson said.
Play long enough, and Oregon might earn the right to meet the West Region's No. 3 seed, Creighton, in the Sweet Sixteen round. Altman coached there 16 seasons before coming to Oregon in 2010.
"I hope we play them," Altman said. "That would mean they've won and we won, so it'd be a great opportunity."
First up, however, is the rematch with BYU. It will have been almost exactly three months between meetings for the Ducks and Cougars, and both teams figure to have evolved since.
"It's going to be tough," Cook said. "It's hard beating a team twice. We need to focus in, have a good week of practice and just swing away at it."