Barber: Wooten’s defense leads Oregon to Sweet 16
The Oregon players were sitting at their lockers at SAP Center on Sunday evening, having just propelled themselves into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Those who weren’t being interviewed were mostly looking their phones, as people do. Suddenly, forward Louis King turned to fellow freshman Evan Richardson and said, “Kenny almost got a triple-double!”
He was looking at a box score of the Ducks’ 73-54 win over UC Irvine.
“He got a triple-double?” Richardson asked.
“He almost did!” King said, observing that 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Kenny Wooten had finished the game with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.
“That’s crazy,” King added.
It was pretty crazy, especially on the heels of a first-round game in which Wooten blocked four shots in 12th-seeded Oregon’s upset of No. 5 Wisconsin.
The Ducks are singlehandedly attempting to resuscitate the moribund reputation of Pac-12 basketball. Last year was a massacre for the conference; four teams advanced to the tournament, and all of them lost in the first round. The 2018-19 regular season was another debacle. There wasn’t a single Pac-12 school in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Oregon is bucking the trend, though. On Feb. 23, the Ducks were 15-12 overall and 6-8 in Pac-12 play. Going nowhere, in other words. They had been swept by their rival, Oregon State. But they finished the conference schedule with four consecutive wins, swept through the Pac-12 Tournament to claim a spot in the NCAA tournament and now have beaten two good foes by a combined 37 points in San Jose.
“I feel like we’re really representing the Pac-12 well,” Wooten said after the game. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d even get in the tournament, and now we’re able to get into the Sweet 16. It’s really just us showing that we are a team capable of doing things, and the Pac-12 is capable of playing in March Madness.”
Oregon next takes on Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the South, in Louisville on Thursday. The Ducks are not to be trifled with. They are a long, athletic, energetic team. And Wooten may be the longest, most athletic and most energetic among them.
“I never played with someone like that before in my life, until I came to Oregon,” said freshman forward Francis Okoro, who grew up in Nigeria. “Kenny’s just different. I think he’s the most athletic guy in college.”
Okoro had to laugh as he talked about what it’s like to play against Wooten.
“I practice with this dude every day,” he said. “I actually don’t say it when I practice with him, but now watching him play, I’m like, whoa, he can really do some amazing stuff. Kenny has quick bounce, and he knows how to use his stuff real good. He’s one of the best shot blockers I’ve ever seen for his height.”
Wooten had a couple of key stretches during Sunday’s game. The second of the two was the most impressive — in fact, you won’t see many individual sequences during this tournament that can top it.
The Ducks were up 66-49 with 2:35 to play. They were putting the finishing touches on their win when Anteaters guard Robert Cartwright drove to the basket and floated a shot. Wooten swatted it. Teammate Ehab Amin got the rebound, the Ducks got to running and Amin tossed a lob at the other end that Wooten hammered through the hoop. The Oregon crowd, sitting in a corner at that end of the arena, erupted. Twenty seconds later, UC Irvine forward Collin Welp went up for a shot and Wooten rejected that one, too. Another rebound by Amin, a 3-pointer by King and the Ducks were up by 22 points.