Barber: Wooten’s defense leads Oregon to Sweet 16

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SAN JOSE

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.

Game over.

But the earlier set of plays by Wooten was even more important, because of when it happened. The Ducks were brilliant all night, except for the first 7:30 of the second half, when they were terrible. Oregon had taken a 35-23 lead into halftime, and apparently started scouting Virginia in the locker room. The Anteaters roared to a 14-0 run to start the half, taking the lead and stripping the Ducks of their poise.

“They started getting a lot of easy baskets, and I personally think it was my fault,” Wooten said. “So I tried to do as much as I could for my team. They told me I wasn’t giving as much effort as I was in the first half, and I really took that and tried to change it.”

Then came a 2-minute stretch in which neither team scored. One reason UC Irvine slowed down was Wooten, who blocked two shots in a span of 1:17. The second was an eye-opener. Cartwright made a nifty move to get to the hoop, only to see Wooten spike his shot like a volleyballer at the net. Amin hit a 3-pointer shortly thereafter, and Oregon was off to the races.

Wooten had plenty of help Sunday. Point guard Payton Pritchard led all scorers with 18 points. Amin was an explosion off the bench; he hit four 3-pointers, and finished with 12 points and three steals. But Wooten makes the plays that get the green-clad fans on their feet, and that get teammates jacked up. And he does it at both ends, dunking as often as he blocks shots.

“Those kinds of plays are game-changing,” Amin said. “For you, and it brings the other team down. They get a little hesitant. They didn’t want to drive the ball again every time they come in the paint. They might travel, or think and kick it out.”

Pritchard and coach Dana Altman both noted that the Oregon guards can be extra aggressive at the perimeter, knowing that if a man gets past them, Wooten will usually be there to ruin the scoring opportunity.

“The difference in the game was the points off turnovers, 25 to 10,” Altman said. “I mean, that was the difference in the game. And so he allows us to be aggressive defensively. Very similar to what Jordan Bell used to do for us when we really had it going a couple years ago.”

A name Bay Area fans can recognize. Bell has struggled for the Warriors this year — perhaps a cautionary tale for Wooten, who Altman said is not always as aggressive as he should be — but his above-the-rim play in college got the Ducks to the Final Four, and got Bell selected in the second round of the NBA draft.

Is Wooten about to make a similar push? It wouldn’t surprise Okoro.

“There’s a lot people who don’t know about Kenny yet,” he said. “He’s gonna show them.”

He started this weekend in San Jose.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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