In Eugene, Ore., the future arrived early on Thursday night.
The Oregon Ducks were expected to rise in the coming years as Dana Altman’s young, talented roster matured. But the team’s 70-66 victory over No. 4 Arizona, a squad that entered the game with an unblemished record, changed the discussion surrounding the Pac-12 title race.
And next (potentially) became now.
A surging Oregon squad turned Matthew Knight Arena into the stage for an unlikely upset. The Ducks fell into an 11-0 hole in the first half and then, changed their fortunes -- changed the early Pac-12 championship picture -- with a 41-19 rally. They led by 11 (41-30) at halftime.
The Wildcats had toyed with defeat multiple times in previous outings against Colorado, San Diego State, Utah and Florida. And as they launched another comeback with minutes remaining in the game, it appeared as though Oregon would fall, too.
But the Ducks’ resilience -- a stubbornness that forced 14 Wildcats turnovers and held the three big men (Kaleb Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley) in Sean Miller’s highly touted recruiting class to a combined 3-for-13 mark -- helped them resist that push.
Oregon led by 13 with 5 minutes to play. The Wildcats, however, pressured the Ducks and cut that deficit. Nick Johnson's 3-pointer with 53 seconds on the game clock squeezed that gap to 3. Dominic Artis missed a rushed 3-pointer on the other end of the floor and Johnson raced the other way.
Cue the déjà vu, right?
But Oregon’s Johnathan Loyd chased, forced a turnover and drew a foul. He made 1 of 2 free throws to give Oregon a four-point lead.
No Arizona magic in Eugene. Not on Thursday night.
Oregon connected on 7 of 11 3-pointers and shot 48.1 percent from the field, accuracy that Mark Lyons' game-high 21 points couldn’t overcome.
Altman had lost so much from his 2011-12 squad -- including star guard Devoe Joseph -- that he told one preseason publication, “You’ve got six freshmen. Any way to put that together quick is probably not going to happen. It’s just going to take some time.”
But Oregon freshmen Artis (3-for-4 from the 3-point line, 10 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals) and Damyean Dotson (9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block) were crucial participants in Thursday’s win. E.J. Singler (14 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals) led four Oregon scorers in double figures.
And now, the Pac-12’s list of contenders demands another look.
After the Wildcats knocked off Florida, they were touted as eventual league champs. With each win, they seemed to expand the chasm between them and the rest of the conference.
But Arizona’s victories masked some of its struggles, such as its challenges defending the 3-point line (289th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings).
As they rumbled through multiple tight finishes, the Wildcats’ success also overshadowed the recent growth around the league.
It took Shabazz Muhammad about a month to get back into shape after missing early games due to an NCAA investigation, but the freshman has been one of the best players in America in recent weeks. He’s averaging 19.6 points per game for a UCLA team that’s won eight in a row.
Colorado is 1-2 in Pac-12 play but last week’s effort at Arizona -- a game that should have ended in regulation on Sabatino Chen's 3-pointer -- proved that the Buffaloes can compete with the best in the Pac-12.
But no team had previously announced its place in the title conversation the way Oregon did Thursday night in its only regular-season matchup against the Wildcats.
The Ducks, who will also face UCLA once (Jan. 19 in Los Angeles) during the regular season, were dominant most of the evening. They play fast, they defend well (19th in Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings) and they tussle for 40 minutes. They proved as much when they upset No. 24 UNLV in the Global Sports Classic in Las Vegas. But the excitement spawned by that win did not last long because the Ducks lost to No. 21 Cincinnati the next night.
They also endured a wacky 91-84 triple overtime loss to UTEP on Dec. 19.
The squad that showed up Thursday night, however, can clearly play with any team in the league.
It’s “the” league now. Not just Arizona’s.