NCAA Tournament appearances are old hat for the Oregon Ducks, since head coach Dana Altman's arrival in 2010. The 2017 Tournament marks five straight for the program, and Friday's win over Iona makes it five consecutive with at least one win. The Ducks are one more victory shy of reaching their third Sweet 16 since 2013.
Rhode Island simply making the field of 68 this season marked a huge milestone for this program. While the Rams' drought didn't quite match the 35-year gap between appearances Oregon endured from 1960 to 1995, Rhode Island had not been in the Tournament since 1999. The Rams hadn't won in the Big Dance since the year prior on their way to an Elite Eight under national championship-winning head coach, Jim Harrick.
The spotlight of the NCAA Tournament may be new for Rhode Island and familiar to Oregon, but Sunday's Midwest Regional matchup should be hotly contested. Rhode Island has been on fire for the last few weeks, winning nine straight. The Rams rode that hot streak through the Atlantic 10 Tournament, where they dispatched VCU in the conference title game.
Oregon lost its conference championship to Arizona, but the 83-80 defeat was just a small bump for a team speeding along since January. The Pac-12 title game also marked the Ducks' first contest without center Chris Boucher, whose season ended with a knee injury.
The Ducks look for their first national title since winning the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, but must get through a stingy Rhode Island defense to take the next necessary step.
Midwest Region: No. 11 Rhode Island Rams (25-9) vs. No. 3 Oregon Ducks (30-5)
Time: 7:10 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: Golden 1 Center (Sacramento)
Line: Oregon -5
Keys for Rhode Island
Dan Hurley's fiery personality manifests on the court for Rhode Island in the form of a blistering defensive style. The Rams hold opponents to the ninth-lowest field-goal efficiency in college basketball, block shots on the second-most opponent possessions, and force the second-worst 3-point percentage.
In Oregon, however, the Rams see a similarly constructed opponent. The Ducks play a high-tempo and versatile offensive style, sure, but are one of the most defensively aggressive teams in the nation. The challenge Sunday isn't so much slowing down the Oregon offense as it is Rhode Island finding ways to score on the Ducks' own stout defense.
Boucher's absence from the lineup presents a prime opportunity for Rhode Island. Not only was Boucher's Oregon's top shot-blocking threat, but without him, Altman has one less post presence to clog the interior. Drawing fouls on Jordan Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams, who's taken on a role of heightened importance with Boucher out, may be Rhode Island's best course to an upset.
Dynamic playmakers E.C. Matthews and Jeff Dowtin were both critical in the First Round defeat of Creighton, each getting to the foul line for 10 attempts. They went a combined 20-of-20. If they can find similar success and get Bell on the bench, the lane will be clear to operate in.
Keys for Oregon
Despite its offensive efficiency and high scoring totals, Oregon isn't a team that necessarily thrives on tempo. In fact, the Ducks average nearly 17 seconds in clock used per possession. They also rank on the lower half of all teams in college basketball for adjusted tempo, per KenPom.com.
Oregon does, however, have the playmakers necessary to push the pace. The Ducks may need to do just that in order to get the best looks at the basket, given Rhode Island's defensive tenacity. The Rams' No. 2-ranked three-point defense suggests Tyler Dorsey will have to work hard to get his shot off, and the shooting guard has been crucial to some of Oregon's biggest wins this season.
He torched Arizona in a February matchup, and dropped 24 points Friday against Iona. Dorsey's shot falling extends the defense, opening the floor for versatile All-America candidate Dillon Brooks to do his thing. And that applies both to Brooks being able to attack off the dribble, shoot from long range and crash the glass. Brooks is one of the best rebounding wings in the country.
The similar styles Oregon and Rhode Island employ negate most strategic edges. This is a game that could come down to simple execution, and which lineup has the playmakers necessary to deliver in critical moments.
Dillon Brooks is one such player. He's been great against outstanding defenses like Arizona and Cal. He has NBA game, which can make all the difference for a team in an even matchup such as this. While the Ducks' recently thinned frontcourt could cause problems for them at some point on the road to Glendale, Oregon should survive against a quality Rhode Island squad.
Prediction: Oregon 74, Rhode Island 65