Sounds a little strange, doesn't it? But every time I think about Saturday's game I can't help but be reminded of the similarities between these Ducks and the 1997 Wildcats. This week's Pac-10 Tournament could could give Duck fans reason for optimism.
OU actually played good enough to win Saturday's game. The Ducks held a 38-35 lead at halftime and were still leading with 12 minutes to go. As I watched the game I couldn't believe this was a team about to finish fifth in the conference. I told Josh Pastner after the game that in my opinion Oregon was still the second best team in the conference and a team I would not want to face in the NCAA Tournament if I were a coach. And maybe it's a team Arizona does not want to meet in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinal.
Oregon's trek through the desert to end its regular season also reminded me of Arizona's final two regular season games during the 1996-97 season.
Just prior to the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Arizona went to the Bay Area hoping to finish second in the conference. Instead, the Wildcats came home with two loses. The Cats dropped a one-point decision to Sanford (81-80), then got axed by Cal 74-72 in the regular season finale, a game played at the Cow Palace in Oakland.
In comparison, Oregon made an equally difficult season-ending trip. The Ducks came to the desert looking for a sweep in hopes it could improve its seeding in the Pac-10 Tournament and do the same in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The Ducks 91-77 loss to the Sun Devils all but sealed a fifth place finish in the conference and the 88-80 defeat at the hands of No. 1 ranked Arizona put them on the NCAA Tournament bubble. However, at 20-9 on the season, the Ducks just ain't bad enough to be considered a bubble team. In my opinion, they're in.
Bubble or no bubble, the Ducks will have a shot at redemption in LA. In the matchup of No. 4 versus No. 5, Oregon will battle ASU in a rematch of game one in the desert. If the Ducks can take care of business and thump the Devils, it's likely they would face the Wildcats in the tournament semifinals.
Most coaches, especially those like Lute Olson who have already wrapped up the regular season conference title, don't think much of this tournament and who can you blame them. The Wildcats have everything to lose and nothing to win. Lute would much prefer staying home, resting and preparing for the opening round of the real tournament.
The Ducks on the other hand wouldn't have it any other way. One Pac-10 Tournament win should insure their entry to the Big Dance and two wins would give them a very good seed.
Now, consider this.
If the Ducks should pull off the upsets and win the Pac-10 Conference Tournament, and that's not as far fetched as you might think, just look at the similarities between Arizona's run to the national championship in 1997 and this year's Oregon Ducks:
Arizona finished the 1996-97 regular season with two tough loses on the road
Oregon finished the 2002-03 regular season with two tough loses on the road
Arizona's Pac-10 Conference finish during the 1996-97 regular season – 5th
Oregon's Pac-10 Conference finish during the 2002-03 regular season – 5th
Arizona finished the Pac-10 season with a 10-6 conference record
Oregon finished the Pac-10 regular season with an 11-7 conference record
Arizona's record entering the 1997 NCAA Tournament – 22-9
Oregon's record entering the 2003 NCAA Tournament would be 23-9
Scary, isn't it.
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