The human foot features 26 bones. It’s a fragile body part that bears the weight of an entire frame.
At Oregon, one foot could determine the final standing of an entire program in 2016-17 and lead to the answer to a pressing question for a team that hasn’t reached the Final Four since it last won the national championship in 1939: Can the Ducks crash the party and win the whole thing?
The exploration of that potential starts with Dillon Brooks and a foot injury that could sideline the star for a chunk of the season. The junior did not participate in the team’s offseason trip to Spain. It wasn't an alarming development in Eugene. Then a source told the Oregonian last month that Brooks should return sometime in November. That’s good for the program, but foot injuries are dicey and recoveries often uncertain. And the Ducks need Brooks.
"We saw a big gap not having Dillon and what he gives our team," Altman told the publication about the impact Brooks’ absence had on the team during its offseason trip to Europe. “Not only from a physical standpoint, but leadership. There was a big hole there.”
The Ducks could be a great team. They could finish what they seemed to start last season and compete for a national title. But only if Brooks (16.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 81 percent from the free throw line) gets healthy and stays healthy.
We often make the mistake of writing the script of a season months before it unfolds and presents scenarios we never anticipated. Consider: Villanova winning the national championship on a last-second shot in April; Kentucky’s 38-0 squad in 2014-15 losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four; and Butler reaching consecutive national title games in 2010 and 2011.
Even though history presents a strong case to avoid these preseason predictions, we can’t seem to help ourselves.
So here goes:
Duke probably will win the national title, unless Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona or North Carolina stops them. Lost in these early assumptions? Oregon returns four of five starters from last season's Elite Eight team -- a balanced squad that won 11 consecutive games before Buddy Hield and Oklahoma outplayed the Ducks and stole the Final Four berth that they’ll pursue this season.
The Ducks won the Pac-12 and the conference tournament.
Although the conference flopped in the NCAA tournament -- only Oregon advanced to the second weekend -- the league tied the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC with seven bids. In that strong conference, Oregon won its final five league games and whipped Utah in a 31-point blowout in the Pac-12 tournament title game.
Why isn’t this team, which returns five of its top seven scorers, entering the year with more hype? Well, it’s hard to emerge in any field where Duke, Kentucky and Kansas -- arguably the top three squads in the country -- are positioned as national championship contenders. That makes it easier to forget about the best team on the West Coast.
But Oregon could challenge every preseason idea about the national landscape and win the crown. The Ducks can’t match the NBA-level talent on the rosters of Kentucky and Duke. Who can? Many said the same of Villanova last season. Like the Wildcats, the Ducks possess a great team that ended 2015-16 as one of the most promising programs in the country.
Once Tyler Dorsey and Brooks announced they would return, the Ducks became a legit top-10 team.
That’s still the case, although Oregon will drop in the early polls with Brooks sidelined.
When Brooks comes back and regains full strength, Oregon will rival any contender in the country. It’s not fair to call an Elite Eight team with its nucleus intact a sleeper. But they’re not the first program -- or second, third or fourth -- most consider when they’re pondering the teams that might snip the nets in Phoenix.
They will enter this conversation once the season begins -- and Brooks gets healthy.
If he returns and is not the same player or his absence extends into December or beyond, then we’ll revisit this notion.
We can answer the initial question about Oregon’s shot at the national championship, though. Yes, the Ducks can win it all and disrupt the conclave of powerhouses most view as the real contenders as the season approaches. They are just one foot from solidifying that idea.