After an extremely frustrating and disappointing start to conference play, Oregon’s men’s basketball team showed life with a blowout win over USC, who granted, wasn’t exactly a juggernaut but entered the game 2-1 in Pac 12 play. It seemed like the Ducks were in a different gear, one it also appeared they’d hit against UCLA before the Bruins suddenly unleashed a bevy of impossible 3-pointers in the final minutes to force overtime, halting the momentum Oregon had gathered.
But still, the Ducks looked much more energetic and active than they did against Oregon State, when they dug themselves an embarrassingly large hole they eventually crawled out of only to come up short in crunch time.
The Ducks had already looked shaky given their lofty expectations heading into this season, and when Bol Bol and Abu Kigab both announced they had played their final games in an Oregon uniform barely into January it was obvious this was going to be an uphill climb. But against the Bruins Oregon made the right adjustments. Without Bol Oregon is not a team that’s going to dominate down low and win a lot of battles in the paint. Realizing this, coach Dana Altman resorted to the small-ball lineup with three guards, one he’s used successfully many times over his tenure at Oregon, and implemented the full-court press defensively.
This sort of play was made famous by the 2007 men’s team, who only a year after missing out on even the NIT, stormed to the Conference Tournament title and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. That team’s Center/Post was a 6’9” stretch forward and the Ducks turned games into track meets with their small ball squad, also electing to utilize full-court press defensively.
Despite the loss, the change in play gave the Bruins fits as Oregon forced turnovers like a machine and spread the ball around much better offensively then they have all season. This style of play continued to work against USC, the biggest difference being Oregon started sinking their perimeter shots.
Now we’ll find out over the coming weeks whether or not the Ducks have truly turned a corner in their play. Since Altman took over the helm, Oregon has won 20 or more games every season. They’re currently halfway there, but would have to win 10 of 15 if they wanted to head into the Pac 12 Tournament with a 20-win season under their belt.
There are a number of reasons to believe Oregon could accomplish just that. First off, Altman teams have historically finished the season strong, playing their best basketball by March. Even teams that looked dead in the water in January have stormed into the NCAA Tournament under Altman. Second, the role players are starting to establish themselves. Will Richardson and Ehab Amin have been absolute pests to opposing teams defensively, compiling a myriad of steals. Victor Bailey has learned how to use his athleticism to create shots for himself, Francis Okoro plays like a 7-footer at 6’9”. Bol may be out but fellow 5-star freshman Louis King is beginning to shake off the rust and look like a smooth, effective weapon. Also let’s not forget that Oregon should be getting Kenny Wooten back by next month. Though his stat line doesn’t necessarily show it, Wooten is a huge impact player. His rim protection defensively and athleticism offensively create problems for opposing teams.
And finally, there’s the simple fact that the Pac 12 just isn’t very strong in men’s basketball this year. There truly does not appear to be any team that looks as though they can make legitimate noise in the big dance this year, and maybe only the conference tournament champion will be heading there at all.
Oregon heads to Tucson on Thursday and though there will be no DeAndre Ayton’s or Alonzo Trier’s to deal with this time around it’s never an easy place to get a win. Oregon can come back from this desert trip with more than just a tan, they can show anxious fans they’ve figured out the path to a successful season.