Arizona Dreamin’: Oregon achieves a rare feat in the desert
Amidst all of the chaos and uncertainty surrounding the Oregon football program as far as who was staying, who was going, and are we really absolutely sure that they may be staying or going; the Oregon basketball team was making headlines of its own. Albeit overshadowed by the early departures to an extent, there was some remarkably good news in the world of Duck sports last weekend on the hard court. In fact, what the Oregon Ducks basketball team achieved last week had not been accomplished in the past 33 seasons.
While all the internet buzz was about the decision of Darron Thomas to leave for the NFL and speculation of potentially others that could jump ship, the Men’s Basketball team meanwhile was doing something remarkable down in the desert, deserving of some serious attention.
It is a bit ironic that in the wake of Ernie Kent’s contract being bought out and the introduction of Dana Altman as head coach there has been a mass exodus of players from the Oregon basketball program, yet one player leaving the football team generates more talk than the sum of all basketball players leaving the program combined. Players left, players refused to play, and so on. Then when Dana Altman came in and implemented his system yet more players transferred, other athletes just stopped playing, or otherwise refused to play for the new coach.
My point is this; the basketball program at Oregon has had problems like these long before the football program has had question-marks in the wake of key players saying goodbye to Eugene. It is as a result of this adversity through attrition that the basketball program has become closer, stronger, and is off to their best start in recent memory. Perhaps the football program should take a page from the Oregon Basketball book and realize that these problems have a way of healing on their own, as we can see from Dana Altman’s team today. In both seasons players left the program, leaving a short depth chart. Despite the adversity, Altman’s teams have thrived, winning the CBI tournament last year and off to a start this season that puts them in contention at least for the Pac-12 title.
To give you a better perspective of what I am talking about with the struggles this basketball team has been through and how they have risen above it all, here are some important numbers to remember; through the first six games of last year, the Ducks were 1-5. Through the first six games this year, 4-2. What a difference a year makes.
Speaking of problems, I really thought that after the Cal game that Oregon might be getting back into their old habits; playing for solo stats and not each other, turning the ball over, and ignoring defense. Who knew that all the team needed was a little sun, and a road trip to Arizona to fix them.
In addition, the recent road trip to Arizona was more important than even I realized. Last year the battle with the Arizona schools took place in Eugene, and Oregon lost both games. Going into the series in Arizona this year, the Ducks had not swept the Arizona schools in 33 years. Need I say more?
However, starting off in Tempe last Thursday night against Arizona State gave Oregon an advantage before the game even started. This season the Ducks are an undefeated 3-0 on Thursday nights. The Ducks brought their Thursday record to 4-0 with the 67-58 win over ASU.
The good news; other than the win, was that Oregon had four players in double figures. Devoe Joseph led the team in scoring with 15 points, while big man Tony Woods had 12, Singler had 11, and the lone senior Garrett Sim had 10. The game against ASU was Devoe Joseph’s 10th game in double figures. The first half against the Sun Devils was fundamentally impressive for the Ducks as they took an 11 point lead into the half executing well on the offensive and defensive end.
Now for the bad news; the Ducks came out slow in the second half as they often do, and as a result, let an 11-point lead slip away and at one point trailed by four. However, after a fiery Dana Altman timeout, whatever he said to the team in the huddle seemed to work. The team came out of the timeout to go on a 10-2 run, returning to the fundamental basketball Coach Altman preaches, resulting in forward Tyrone Nared hitting a three to go up 51-47, and the Ducks never looked back cruising to victory over ASU.
Oregon’s victory over ASU could not have been sweeter, as the Ducks have not beaten the Sun Devils since 2007, ending a 7-game losing streak. Most importantly, the Ducks won the turnover battle committing only eight to ASU’s 16. In addition the Ducks shot 53 percent for the game, while only reaching 48 percent in the previous game, a loss to Cal. Also, when it comes to conference play and the Ducks shoot 50 percent or better, the team is a powerful 4-0.
Finishing off the road trip, Saturday the Ducks played in front of a national audience on CBS in Tucson against Arizona. Saturdays are a different animal this year for the Ducks, the team has struggled, 0-2 on Saturdays in conference play. However, that looked to be the motivational factor in the 59-57 win over the Wildcats. Either that, or they were just excited to play on national television.
The first thing that struck me about this game was Oregon’s defensive intensity to start the game. The Ducks had five turnovers in the first half, and not a single one resulted in points for Arizona. The most impressive player for the Ducks in the Arizona game, though he fouled out, was without a doubt, Olu Ashaolu. By halftime he had 10 points and he also shot and made his first three point attempt of the year.
Arizona leads the Pac-12 in conversions from three point land, but in the first half the Ducks defense held Arizona to only 2/7 from three point range, and caused the Wildcat’s to miss their first 15 of 24 shots. With Oregon’s defensive intensity and Arizona’s sheer lack of defensive effort in the first half, the Ducks took an unexpected 34-22 lead into halftime. By halftime once again just like Oregon did against Arizona State, the Ducks were winning the turnover battle (7-10) and rebounding (16-10).
However, looking at the final score, and looking at the halftime score, the familiar pattern emerged once more. Oregon’s worst enemy showed up, the halftime intermission. The game was really a tale of two halves, playing excellent out of the gate, and struggling in the second half. The Ducks once again came out slow and gave Arizona’s defense and big bodies the advantage in the paint.
From the start of the second half up until about the 11:20 mark, the old Ducks showed up and allowed Arizona back in it, bringing the score to 47-40. From there, the Wildcats increased the pressure, taking advantage of the Ducks playing spacious defense, and took a 56-54 lead with only 2:59 left in the game. E.J. Singler’s jumper in the paint falling to the floor from contact, tied the game at 56.
At that point, the lone senior on Oregon’s roster decided to put the team on his back, a new experience for Garrett Sim but familiar to Oregon fans after the way Joevan Catron time and again last season single-handedly won games for Oregon late. Garrett Sim, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the second half, gave the Ducks a 59-56 lead with a right side corner three with only 1:46 remaining. When Sim hit this shot, I thought to myself; the team is still lacking a single leader, but after watching these last five minutes, maybe the five players on the floor, are that one leader.
After Arizona converted 1-2 free throws to bring the score to 59-57, Arizona’s Brendon Lavender missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds. Teammate Kyle Fogg grabbed the rebound but missed a short jumper as time expired and the Ducks escaped Tucson with the 59-57 win. Once again, as I am now officially calling them; “Oregon’s Big 3 “, Joseph (13), Singler (12), and Sim (12), led the team in scoring.
With the win at Arizona, Oregon is now 11-1 when leading at halftime. The Ducks are also 11-1 this season when shooting for a better percentage than their opponent (45-41 percent vs. Arizona). Oregon is 6-1 when committing fewer turnovers than the opposition (13-15 vs. Arizona). Overall, combined against Arizona State and Arizona, the Ducks won 35-6 in points off of turnovers. This sweep of Arizona was, as I said, more important than we realized because the Ducks are 8-0 in games decided by 10 or fewer points. Sim, Joseph, and Singler were a combined 30-30 from the free throw line in the final five minutes of these games which has made the difference.
Also, in sweeping both Arizona schools, the Ducks get their first back-to-back conference wins of the year. Most importantly, going forward, this was the first win for the Ducks in the McKale Center in Tucson since Jan. 5, 2008.
OREGON BEATS USC 65-62 IN MATT KNIGHT ARENA
Now the Ducks are in the midst of a 3-game home stand, playing the two LA schools this week and Oregon State comes to visit next week. Last season the Ducks played both Los Angeles schools back-to-back in Eugene, officially opening Matt Knight Arena. The Ducks split the series, first beating a USC team that would finish fourth in the conference at 19-15 overall and 10-8 in conference play. The Ducks took on a UCLA team two days later that would go on to finish in second place in the conference at 23-11 and 13-5 in conference, Oregon losing to the Bruins 67-59.
This year, the Pac-10 has now transformed into the Pac-12, and what a difference a year makes. Just like last year, both Los Angeles schools will come up north to Eugene, starting with USC’s appearance in Matt Knight Arena last night and UCLA coming in on Saturday. Where the Trojans finished fourth a year ago; in 2012 the Trojans currently sit last in the conference with a record of now 5-15 following the close victory by Oregon over the Trojans Thursday night. The Trojans are yet to win a game in the Pac-12, 0-7 in conference.
With former Duck basketball great Luke Jackson and Ducks football offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich (and family) in the house, the Ducks escaped USC with a narrow 65-62 win. The victory brings Oregon to 14-5 overall, and 5-2 in Pac-12 play.
The Ducks jumped out to an early 9-4 lead on USC behind Olu Ashaolu scoring seven of the Ducks first 14 points coming off the bench. In the first five minutes of the game the Ducks were getting the job done on the boards, outrebounding USC 10-4. USC kept the score close inside seven minutes, the score was 16-14 as both teams must have forgotten to show up on offense.
By the 7:36 mark, Oregon was shooting 5-13 for an aweful 35 percent. The Trojans were not much better going 7-16 for a shooting percentage of 48. With a minute and a half left in the half the Ducks brought their shooting percentage up slightly to 43 percent (7-16). Going into the half the Ducks took a 30-28 lead into the locker room. Oregon’s bright spot through the first half was big man Olu Ashaolu; leading the team with nine points and four rebounds. Garrett Sim also came up big with seven points. By the half the Ducks shot a miserable 11-24 from the field and were only 1-6 from three point land. The only reason Oregon took the lead into the half was because the Ducks dominated the rebounding 20 to USC’s 7.
In the second half, the Ducks came out hot offensively and were able to get to the free throw line to increase it to a seven point lead (37-30). Other than the rebounding advantage, the Ducks started to pull away with the free throw advantage as well. The Ducks converted nine of their first 10 trips to the line, where the Trojans were only 2-2 from the line starting the second half.
In the first four minutes of the second half, the senior leader Garrett Sim stepped up for the second straight game and took over the scoring and finished the game with 20 points. Olu Ashaolu continued his great performance in the first half into the second half finishing the game with 11 points and five rebounds. With three minutes left to go the Ducks had a 56-51 lead and Garrett Sim (20), Olu Ashaolu (11), and Devoe Joseph (11) were the Ducks to finish in double figures. It was not a pretty 65-62 win for the Ducks, but it was a win none the less. With the victory against USC the Ducks are now 10-2 at Matt Knight Arena this year.
OREGON HOSTS UCLA SATURDAY
Now that the USC game is behind us, the Ducks will take on the Bruins on Saturday. The Bruins are also having a down year. UCLA owned second place last year, but currently sit in seventh place with a 10-7 overall record and a 3-2 conference record.
Though UCLA is having a sub-par season to date considering their annual expectations, The Ducks should not take them lightly. However, since Oregon is the better team on paper, and according to the standings; the Ducks should use this opportunity against UCLA to work on the fundamentals that hurt them against Arizona State and Arizona in the second half.
Thursday against USC, it seemed like the Ducks were better on the defensive and rebounding end. However, though these were the areas that needed the most improvement, paying attention to this seemed to hurt the Ducks offensively and was the reason for shooting below 50 percent.
In both games last week, a distinct lack of defensive readiness and aggression led to Oregon giving up a commanding halftime lead, and a struggle down the stretch to regain the lead and maintain it. There is no doubt this Ducks team is better than they were in the Cal game last time they were seen at Matt Knight Arena. Most importantly they are playing much better as a united and unselfish unit, which was missing in the Cal game and much of last season.
What Oregon has to work on and realize now is that if they are going to continue to quietly work their way to the top of the Pac-12 Conference without anyone noticing, they have to perform and win games on the offensive and defensive end of the ball on a consistent basis. Against both Arizona schools, once halftime break was over, the Ducks tried to win only focusing on offense, and in both games, Arizona State and Arizona came back to take the lead. Against USC it appeared as though Oregon has made improvements on both ends of the ball, they now just have to be consistent on both ends.
If Oregon can focus on their transition away from the Ernie Kent-designed 2-3 Zone defense, and execute their Dana Altman-designed 3-2 Zone defense properly against the opposition, then they will be both offensively and defensively unstoppable against any of their remaining Pac-12 opponents and ready to silence the critics in a position to dominate the Pac-12 Tournament come March 7th. It could happen, watch this weekend and find out.
UCLA at Oregon
Saturday, 1/21 – 1pm
Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, OR
*During the game Oregon’s Rose Bowl champion football team will be honored