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Table set for another big season for UO

If all goes according to plan, the Oregon men’s basketball team will return eight players next season, including three starters, to go with at least three incoming freshmen.

That’s the hope for coach Dana Altman, who knows the offseason in college basketball has become open to free agency with hundreds of players transferring each season. Altman has lost transfers and added them during his five years at Oregon, but said he expects every player with eligibility remaining to return next year.

“I would hope so,” Altman said after Oregon’s 72-65 loss to Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. “That’s totally their decision, but I would sure hope.”

All eight Oregon players slated to return spoke with excitement about the future during interviews in the past two weeks.

“We proved a lot this year and we can prove a lot next year,” freshman forward Dillon Brooks said. “All of us freshmen have been growing up quick, which is good. With Elgin (Cook) and Dwayne (Benjamin), it is a great setup for us. It could be a great season next year.”

The disappointment of a season-ending loss to the Badgers began to turn to optimism for next season in Oregon’s locker room after the Ducks finished the season 26-10.

“It is really tough because Joe, Jalil, and Tim, they taught me a lot of stuff,“ freshman guard Ahmaad Rorie said of Oregon’s three seniors. “At the same time, it is exciting to see what we have next year because we bring a lot back.”

The Ducks will graduate guard Joseph Young, the Pac-12 player of the year who led the team in scoring during each of the next two seasons, and Jalil Abdul-Bassit, who averaged 8.2 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from three-point range. Forward Tim Jensen, a walk-on who played in seven games, is the other senior.

Young, who sent daily text messages to his younger teammates during the season, had a final message for them before the team left Omaha, Neb., on Sunday.

“He told us ‘Good luck next year and try to get to that Sweet 16’,” Brooks recalled.

Oregon has overachieved compared with preseason predictions in each of Altman’s five seasons, including a second-place conference finish this year after the Ducks were picked to finish eighth. Next year, Oregon probably will be picked near the top of the conference and could begin the season in the national rankings.

“My message for them was to build off this learning experience,” Young said. “We were picked No. 8; imagine if they pick you No. 1. I told them they were all really good and to keep going. I hope they listen to that.”

Benjamin, Cook, and center Michael Chandler will be seniors next season, and Rorie and Brooks will be sophomores along with Casey Benson, Roman Sorkin and Jordan Bell.

“I enjoyed the whole year, especially with this team,” Bell said. “I have never had a team I bonded with so much.”

Trevor Manuel and Kendall Small have signed to join the Ducks as freshmen next year and Tyler Dorsey has given a verbal commitment. That gives Oregon 11 scholarship players with room for two more if Altman chooses to add to the roster.

The frontcourt will be experienced as Cook and Brooks are returning starters and the top returning scorers after averaging 13.0 and 11.5 points, respectively. The 6-foot-9 Bell is also a returning starter after leading Oregon with 6.1 rebounds per game while setting a school record with 94 blocked shots. Benjamin was willing to start and come off the bench and averaged 8.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

The 6-10 Chandler could give Oregon size it lacked inside if he can get healthy and join the rotation, and the 6-10 Sorkin is expected to contribute more as a sophomore after joining the Ducks in midseason this year. The 6-9 Manuel might contribute immediately as a freshman.

Benson and Rorie split time at point guard this season, playing an average of 19.6 and 18.8 minutes per game, respectively.

“The experience has been critical for us freshmen,” Benson said. “Having all year to learn on the fly has been really good.”

Small is also a point guard, and Dorsey is a shooting guard.

“I like the guys we’ve got coming in and I like the guys we’ve got hopefully coming back,” Altman said. “It’s our job to put the two together.”