If Oregon's Payton Pritchard isn't the nation's best player, he's at least the most valuable to their team
The Ducks' star point guard hit one of the biggest shots of the season to beat Washington
One of the most impressively audacious shots of this impressively unpredictable season of college basketball was daringly delivered by one bad Duck.
Payton Pritchard. Senior point guard, one of the best players in America -- and as we can see here, obviously one of the most confident. This is how Oregon hammered home a 16-point come-from-behind W on the road to win 64-61 for a fourth straight season at Washington. Yes, Mr. Raftery, these are big-time onions.
"They can put the blame on me," Pritchard told the media afterward. "I can take all the criticism, but I will be right there to take that last shot, take that pass, make that play whether it goes good or bad."
The guy has no fear. The winner was Pritchard's second long-range 3-pointer of the game, the first from even farther out late in the second half. Plus, on Oregon's penultimate possession of OT, Pritchard had another heave from deep that badly missed. Didn't matter when the moment was most crucial. Just a nasty shot, one he'll miss more times than not but doesn't seem more prone to miss when Oregon needs it most.
Pritchard's 12th 3-point attempt of the day was his sixth 3-point make of the day. He finished with 22 points -- his average the past five games -- and gave Oregon the victory to keep pace in the Pac-12 and prevent a total free-fall in the polls.
Saturday was not short on head-turning outcomes, but Oregon overcoming a 48-32 deficit near the midway point of the second half to steal this against a desperate Washington team has to rank near the top of the list.
Pritchard's the best player in the Pac-12 and has a claim to best player in the sport. You won't hear a lot of that because he doesn't play for a top-five team (what IS a top-five team these days, anyway? That's right: nobody knows) and he's camped out West. That means Oregon's games are ending at 11 p.m., midnight or 1 a.m. ET most of the time, meaning Pritchard's working at a disadvantage.
But in the height of the afternoon on a loaded Saturday of college basketball that saw eight ranked teams lose -- six of them on the road -- the No. 8-ranked Ducks opted for poise, and then pomp. How about Pritchard proclaiming, "This is my city!" after hitting the dagger?
For the record, he's from Oregon.
But he is claiming ownership of Seattle.
He's taking control of the Pac-12, at least. Yes, the Ducks lost at Washington State (curious!) earlier in the week, but Pritchard's in a zone that could end with the Pac-12 having its first national player of the year since (can you believe this?) UCLA's Ed O'Bannon in 1994-95.
Across the past five games, Pritchard's averaging 22.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and is 21-of-45 (47%) from 3-point land. He's now four assists away from becoming the first player in Pac-12 history to have 1,500 career points, 500 career rebounds and 600 career assists.
I can't for sure say Pritchard has the NPOY lead here, but he's at even pace with the only other reasonable candidates right now. Those players: Duke's Vernon Carey Jr; Dayton's Obi Toppin; Marquette's Markus Howard; Seton Hall's Myles Powell; Louisville's Jordan Nwora; Iowa's Luka Garza; and Kansas' Devon Dotson. It's an eclectic group of players.
Pritchard has an easy case to be as valuable or more so than any other of the others. Dana Altman is playing his star senior 87.3% of the time. (He was the only player on the court for all 45 minutes in Saturday's game.) The next closest Duck in minutes is junior wing Chris Duarte, who's been on the floor for 70% of Oregon's minutes this season.
Pritchard's at 19.4 points, 5.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. He's not the absolute best point guard in college basketball. He doesn't have the most assists or average the most steals. But as far as I can tell, he makes more oh-they-really-needed-that plays than anyone else in college basketball. Only Powell has a rival case against him.
Case in point: The winner from Pritchard will of course command the most attention, but this bucket late was draped in veteran know-how. Just the right touch, just the right feel of Washington's soft spot.
Even better? This escape-route assist late in the second half, which aided the comeback.
This marked the second time this season Oregon overcame a deficit of at least 15 points. The previous? Why, it was against Powell and Seton Hall.
There's a lot of season still to go and the NPOY race, to me, has never felt so up for grabs by late January. If Oregon can win the Pac-12 and Pritchard keeps up with the theatrics, he'll have a great shot. He'll also have a say in something even bigger: getting full-circle with the Ducks and making a Final Four as a senior after getting there as a freshman.
But we'll take it one (ridiculous) play at a time.
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