With as much fun as football has been, its hard to believe that basketball starts tonight. Here is my preview for the season, which should be another good one.
The Ducks are coming off an Elite Eight run where they played the eventual national champion as tough as anyone in the tournament. With only one significant contributor lost from that team, the expectations are high in Eugene. Another tournament run is expected of this veteran group. With all the talent that they have, there is no reason to believe that they can't achieve that.
The problem with losing one significant contributor is that the one contributor is Aaron Brooks. I'm not worried about replacing Brooks' scoring--there is more than enough firepower on this team to make up 17 ppg. The more interesting question is who is going to replace MVP at the end of games? Who is going to take that shot with the game on the line in crunch time that MVP made time and time again last year? There are also some interesting sub-questions. Can Tajuan Porter bring the ball up the floor as a point guard, and if not, who fills that role? Can Malik Hairston step up as a senior and be the player that we've all been waiting to see for the last four years?
The loss of Brooks has already been discussed. Adam Zahn saw minutes in several games last year, and Champ Oguchi was a major contributor two year ago. Both are gone. Only other losses are Adrian Stelly and Josh Akwenuke, who were both walk on practice players.
Transfer big man Frantz Dorsainvil adds some much needed bulk to the frontline. Kamyron Brown was the best big man recruit on the west coast, and could be the answer at point guard. Drew Viney was a rivals top 50 as a small forward, and should see significant time off the bench. Redshirt freshman LeKendric Longmire looked as if he could be a contributor in preseason.
For of five starters return from last year in Maarty Leunen, Malik Hairston, Bryce Taylor, and Tajuan Porter. The other starter figures to be Joevan Catron in a big lineup or Kamyron Brown in a small lineup. At least in the non-conference, I would expect to see Dorsainvil, Viney, Longmire, and Ray Schafer get minutes as Ernie decides on a rotation. I don't see Mitch Platt or Churchill Odia as anything but end of bench type players (then again, I said that about Tajuan last year).
Very competitive non-conference schedule this year. You don't see a ton of marquee names, as Kansas State and Utah are the only big programs on the schedule. But there are five road games, including two to Big XII schools, and a trip to the Chiles Center in Portland, where we have a three game losing streak. This won't be like last year's schedule, where we had to win the Georgetown game to have any legitimacy. If we lose one or two, we're still in decent shape. Kansas State is by far the most worrisome.
This team has too much talent not to do good things. The Aaron Brooks question is a tough one, but there are so many seniors on this team (Malik, Maarty, Bryce) for me to believe that leadership will be an issue. My suspicion is that if Malik does not take over that end of game role, it will be Tajuan Porter. That is just a gut feeling, though, and isn't based on anything else.
As for the point guard situation, I'm not really sure that Tajuan is the answer. He is a scorer, not a distributor, and two guard is the place that he belongs. Therefore, I believe that this team will go small again, starting Kamyron Brown, who is a true distributor, at point guard. Even though Joevan Catron will start initially, I think you'll see Kamyron there by midseason. It'll be a lot like last year, where speed and shooting ability will make up for the lack of bulk upfront. That said, depending on matchups, I think we could also go big at certain points in the game, and a frontline, in stretches, of Dorsainvil, Catron, and Leunen is not out of the question, especially against bigger teams like UCLA. Its just that I think the small lineup will be the norm, whereas the big lineup will be the adjustment.
The two most proven commodities on this team will be Bryce and Maarty. We know what we are going to get there. The biggest question marks of the returnees are Malik and Tajuan. Will Malik finally live up to the hype? Will Tajuan suffer a sophomore slump? If the answer is yes to Malik and no to Tajuan, this team can be scary good. If the results are more mixed, than a bit more of a rough road can be expected. Among the other players, the play of Kamyron brown at the point, and the ability of either Frantz Dorsainvil or Ray Schafer to give us quality stretches against opposing big men is going to be key. With so much the same this season, end of game leadership and situational defense are really the keys. Scoring in bunches will be no issue.
I fully expect us to win every non-conference game, with the possible exception of Kansas State, which is a toss up. However, as we have already seen from Kentucky, Michigan State, and Ohio State, anybody can beat anybody anywhere. So losing another game or two, especially with all those road games, is entirely possible. I don't expect it, but wouldn't be floored by it. My two games to watch out for are the game at Portland, as we have an inexcusable three game losing streak in their building, or at Nebraska. Hopefully, we can avoid the upset bug there.
As for the conference season, I expect a top three finish. UCLA is still the best, and will likely win the conference. But I'm not buying SC, and believe that chemistry (namely OJ Mayo) will keep them from being as good as their talent says they should be. I'm also not a believer in Arizona, especially without Lute Olson for an unspecified amount of time. Much like last year, it'll come down to Oregon and Washington State for second place in the conference, with a possible surprise run by the hated Huskies.
It all begins tonight. Ducks vs. Pepperdine at 4:00 on CSN-NW.