Kenny Wooten and Oregon Are the 2019 NCAA Tournament's Biggest Glitch
Few things in basketball are as demoralizing as infiltrating a defense, getting to the basket and finishing at the rim only to find that whoops—you did not actually finish. That, instead, the ball now resides in the first row of the stands. Not because you did anything wrong—on the contrary, you may have done everything right—but because of a glitch in the system.
Kenny Wooten is that glitch. On Sunday night, the Oregon sophomore forward, whose body composition appears to be 4% water and 96% fast-twitch fibers, blocked seven shots in the Ducks’ 73–54 win over UC Irvine. Wooten slapped away layups. He denied 6'10" Jonathan Galloway at the rim. He launched balls sideways and downwards and, once, into a pod of Oregon fans at one end of the SAP Center in San Jose. He even leaped, Matrix-like, out toward Irvine guard Max Hazzard, tipping away his stepback three-pointer. None of the aforementioned Irvine shots were, technically speaking, bad shots. Against most teams, they’d be good looks. Just not against Oregon.
Wooten tries to name all his blocks afterward—“Watch me do this!” he tells me, seated in a folding chair in the locker room—but fails. He can only recall four. He’s proudest of the blocked three-pointer because it’s the first time he’s done that in college. But the last one, a near horizontal erasure on Collin Welp's attempted post move, was his favorite. At least until he’s reminded of the blocked dunk. “Ohhhh, I forgot about that. That was nice!”
Wooten professes to be at a bit of a loss to explain the mechanics of it. He describes how, growing up in Stockton, Calif., he didn’t even think he was good at basketball. How his mom took him to a hoops clinic at the Y but then gave up on him. “She said I was terrible, so she took me out of it. She said my younger sister was way better than me. She could dribble and all that and I couldn‘t.”
So Wooten hooped down at Victory Park, hoping to get better. It helped that he grew: from six-foot as an eighth grader to 6'4" as a freshman, then year by year 6'6", then 6'8", then his current 6'9". He was never much of a shooter. Still isn’t. “His offense is way behind," Oregon coach Dana Altman says, standing in the hallway after the win. “His passing is way behind.”
That will come, though, Altman says. What matters for now is what Wooten allows the team to do: play a constantly morphing matchup zone that includes man-to-man, bouts of full-court pressure and occasional double teams. The team endeavors to “wall up” at the rim, allowing Wooten to come from the weak side and attack. He says he waits until a shot’s in the air to jump. He says Altman doesn’t care if he occasionally goaltends (“No, not at all,” Altman confirms). He says he tries to stay out of foul trouble (with mixed success).
Of late, the strategy has worked. Oregon needed to win the Pac-12 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament at all but now finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, riding a 10-game winning streak. The Ducks’ defense has been one of the best in the country over the last month, triggered by the pressure of point guard Payton Pritchard and a core of long, switchable players that includes Sunday’s other hero, Egyptian-born Ehab Amin, who led the NCAA in steals at Texas A&M Corpus Christi before transferring to Oregon. He had three more on Sunday (and also sank four three-pointers).
Oregon’s defensive system is unusual in that it’s built around the personnel but its personnel is also built around its defensive system. During Altman’s first Sweet 16 run, he had Tony Woods swatting shots. Then it was Chris Boucher, then Jordan Bell. A theme emerged. Altman recruited for like-bodied—and minded—players, and those types of players noticed the Ducks. Says Altman: “Kenny saw what Jordan was able to accomplish and that’s why he came to play for us.” Altman pauses, becoming wistful. “And we could have had Bol [this year],” he says, referring to Bol Bol, the 7'2" son of Manute, who went down with a foot injury in December and will likely depart for the NBA after the season, projected as a top-15 pick. “We’d really have caused problems.”
They’re doing just fine so far. Wooten is not Bol, but he’s now blocked four or more shots in four straight games (he’s averaged two-plus in his two seasons). He remains in the middle of his learning curve. “A lot of it is instinct,” says Altman. “He gets caught flat-footed a lot of times, gets caught watching. Not tonight. His instincts are getting better.”
His teammates appreciate it. Pritchard talks about the “safety net” his teammate provides. Freshman Miles Norris, who’s 6'10", talks of how he’s learned to be careful in practice. “It gets in your head a little bit,” he says of knowing Wooten is lurking. “I just try to go strong and dunk on him.”
Has he succeeded?
Morris looks to sophomore guard Victor Bailey Jr., seated to his left. “I think I got him once,” he says.
Bailey grimaces, then starts shaking his head and looks at the source of the question. “Let’s just say no,” Bailey says. (Asked about it later, Wooten thinks. “Nah, I don’t get boomed in practice. Bol definitely boomed me in practice a couple times, but that’s it.” Though Wooten does allow that forward Louis King will “filet” him—that is, lay it in on him.)
For now, Wooten is enjoying all of this. After his last block Sunday, he laughed on the court. “It’s fun,” he says, and it does look that way. He has yet to gain a nickname, other than “Ken-Dog”. Says Wooten, perhaps hopefully: “Not like Swatting Machine or anything like that.”
This Thursday, Oregon will face No. 1 seed Virginia. To win, they’ll need their defense to disrupt the game. To pressure the ballhandlers. Wall up at the rim. And hope Wooten—sorry, The Swatting Machine—can do the rest.