When senior center Chris Boucher went down with a torn ACL in the Pac-12 tournament, it looked like he took Oregon’s Final Four hopes with him. Boucher was the Ducks’ primary rim protector, and though he came off the bench, no one else on their roster had his combination of length, athleticism, and shooting ability. But his absence created a bigger opportunity for junior big man Jordan Bell, who ran with it and became the breakout star of this year’s tournament. Bell was everywhere on Saturday, with a near triple-double of 11 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks, and four assists on 5-of-6 shooting, leading Oregon to a 74–60 victory. Even before his performance against Kansas, his rebounding prowess in March had him in elite company.
It’s not like Bell came out of nowhere. He was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and he averaged 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 blocks a game on 62.9 percent shooting this season. However, with Boucher averaging 23.6 minutes per game, Bell split his time between power forward and center, and it was harder for him to be as effective when he had to share the floor with another big man. Over the past two weeks, Bell has been playing primarily as a small-ball center next to Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, at power forward. Bell has been a revelation in that role, essentially playing like a collegiate version of Draymond Green: locking down the paint on defense, erasing guards on switches, dominating the boards, rolling hard to the rim on offense, and making plays out of the high post.
At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Bell is undersized for the center position, even at the college level, but he makes up for it with elite quickness and hops, wiry strength, and an incredible sense of timing and anticipation. Despite contesting almost every shot Kansas took in the lane on Saturday, Bell committed only one foul. He does a great job of keeping his hands straight in the air and avoiding contact with opposing players when they attack the rim, and he almost never puts himself in a position to have to reach or grab. Bell’s ability to stay out of foul trouble is especially important for the Ducks with Boucher out — reserve center Kavell Bigby-Williams doesn’t deliver nearly the same type of defensive impact. As soon as Bell checked out in the middle of the second half, Kansas made a run and got themselves back in the game. When Bell is in, the paint is a no-fly zone:
Oregon has been known for high-flying offense under seventh-year head coach Dana Altman, but it was their defense that was the story against Kansas. The Jayhawks had been averaging 96 points on 54.7 percent shooting in the tournament, and the Ducks held them to 60 points on 35 percent shooting. Bell was at the center of everything — manning the middle in their matchup zone, which flustered Bill Self’s team all night, and switching screens and staying in front of Kansas guards Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham when they were playing man. He even guarded star freshman Josh Jackson for stretches of the game. It was as dominant a defensive performance as you will ever see in the Big Dance.
After racing out to an 11-point halftime lead and controlling the game in front of a raucous Jayhawks crowd in Kansas City, Oregon ran out of steam in the second half. Instead of running their offense, they were focused more on running out the clock, giving Kansas an opportunity to make a comeback. However, every time the outcome was in question, Tyler Dorsey knocked down a 3-pointer, finishing the game with 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting. The junior guard, who has been dubbed “Mr. March” for his late-game heroics, saved Oregon’s season with a last-second 3 in their second-round win over Rhode Island. The play that sealed the game on Saturday featured the combination of Bell and Dorsey, with Bell tracking down yet another offensive board (his sixth of the game), and the ball winding up in Dorsey’s hands for a dagger 3 with two minutes left.
With the win, Oregon advanced to its first Final Four in over 70 years, and the first for a Pac-12 team in nine years. The Ducks will play either North Carolina or Kentucky in what should be a thrilling matchup next Saturday, and Bell will once again be asked to shut down a high-flying offense. He will be going up against a much more touted high-school recruit — be it Kennedy Meeks or Bam Adebayo — but Bell doesn’t have to back down to anyone. He already took Moritz Wagner out of the tournament in the Sweet 16. Bell is currently projected as a early-second-round draft pick by DraftExpress, and he has made himself a lot of money over the last few days, although his lack of shooting ability could put a ceiling on his potential at the next level. Either way, a star has been born in March, and he is taking Oregon to a place that it hasn’t been in a long time. It’s Jordan Bell’s world. We are all just living in it.