Lost between the buildup to the Rose Bowl and the opening of the NBA season is the fact that conference play begins today for the Oregon basketball teams. Because it is winter vacation, and nobody actually lives in Pullman during winter vacation, the Ducks will travel to Spokane to take on Washington State to open Pac-12 play. The resumes of the two schools are remarkably similar--Oregon hasn't really beaten any good teams, but hasn't lost to any bad ones, either (in spite of their best efforts). Washington State can almost say the same, with three of their losses coming to Gonzaga, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, but there's a complete stunner of a loss to UC-Riverside mixed in there (although WSU has generally taken care of their other non-conference competition in much more impressive fashion than Oregon has managed thus far)..
Usually, headed into conference play, we have a fairly good idea of the conference hierarchy, and how good teams are. This year? No clue. I mean, we know the conference is bad. Really bad. In fact, Oregon is almost unique in the simple fact that it doesn't have a terrible loss. What are the marquee wins that this conference has had thus far? Stanford has beaten Oklahoma State and NC State, both of which are solid, but not great. Oregon State beat Texas and got blown out at home by Idaho). No good wins for Arizona. None for Washington. Cal has been absolutely blown out of the gym by every good team they've played. Utah will finish last--they are that bad--but, you could put 1-11 in almost any order at the end of the season, and I wouldn't be shocked by it. The talk is that the Pac-12 won't get more than two teams into the tournament, and Prehm was tweeting the other day that Oregon would need 14 wins between conference play and the conference tournament to feel good about their NCAA chances. Whatever the reputation, the Pac-12 certainly isn't a power conference right now, and hasn't been in some time. There isn't a good excuse for it, ever, let alone three or four years in a row. However, it is what it is, which isn't a very good basketball conference right now.
Washington State has come on strong, winning six in a row as many players have come back from injury. The guys leading the Cougars are players that should be well known to Oregon fans at this point. Perhaps the most suprising is 6'10" junior Brock Motum. Motum has doubled last season's scoring average--and is up to 14 a game--but what has impressed most is his toughness and physicality. A softer player in years past, Motum has developed an interior game, and isn't afraid to mix it up down low. He brings home almost seven rebounds to go along with his points. To make matters worse, the Cougars start another 6'10 post, Charlie Enquist, who brings home another seven rebounds a game himself. A key reserve, DJ Shelton, also stands at 6'10". Tony Woods, Olu Ashaolu, and Jeremy Jacob haven't rebounded terribly well this season, and will have their hands full with WSU's twin towers. Fortunately, Tyrone Nared should be back from injury, improving post depth as well as giving Oregon back their best rebounder.
A trio of guards round out the starting lineup in Reggie Moore, Marcus Capers, and DeVonte Lacy. Moore and Lacy are scorers who can hit the three, while Capers is more of a defensive minded player who doesn't shoot a lot (and never from three), but almost always hits when he does. WSU's leading scorer is actually reserve Faisal Aden, who scores over 15 points per game, but at times can be a black hole, taking crazy shots out of the offense and becoming a turnover machine. So long as Aden isn't being uncharacteristically efficient, its not a bad idea to let him get into ballhog mode.
FOUR FACTORS PREVIEW:
eFG%: Washington State 54.1 (30), Oregon 51.1 (100)
Oregon was one of the best in the country in this statistic early, but has cooled down considerably in the last few weeks. Washington State has the three 6'10" guys who all get a lot of shots near the basket and shoot very high percentages. Oregon, on the other hand, has turned much more into a perimeter team as the inconsistency of the posts has shown through and EJ Singler, Garrett Sim, and Devoe Joseph have been forced to provide the bulk of the offense.
Turnover %: Oregon 20.2 (125), Washington State 22.2 (234)
The Ducks have cleaned up the turnovers considerably from earlier in the season and, while the numbers still aren't great, its much better than the sub-250 numbers that they were sporting a couple of weeks ago. Washington State turns the ball over a lot.
Offensive Rebounding %: Washington State 33.4 (137), Oregon 27.8 (293)
Washington State's numbers are very low for a team of their size, but Oregon is simply abysmal. Oregon is not a small team, and there is no excuse for them to be as bad at rebounding as they are, but they have consistently not attacked the boards with a whole lot of intensity, and have had trouble corralling rebounds when they are the first one there. Not getting completely killed on the boards is a must if Oregon is to win.
FTA/FGA: Oregon 47.0 (24), Washington State 43.3 (63)
Oregon gets to the free throw line with surprising regularity for such a perimeter oriented team. Washington State gets there a lot as well.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
1. Rebounding: Oregon has big guys. A lot of them. There is no excuse--none--for the rebounding on this team to be as abysmal as it has been. If Oregon gets outrebounded big, they have no shot. However, if the Ducks can hold even on the boards, Oregon's superior perimeter players should give them a great shot to win.
2. Effective Press: Washington State has been very turnover prone. If Oregon can run the press effectively, they should be able to make the Cougar guards uncomfortable, both causing turnovers and getting the pace up.
3. Intensity: The biggest difference between this season and last, in my view, has just been general intensity and hustle. It just doesn't look like a lot of these guys work all that hard. If they can start to recapture the intensity that last year's team played with, sheer talent should lead them to success.