So much hoopla surrounded the Ducks football program in the last week or so, specifically whether head coach Chip Kelly would officially leave for the NFL or not. Kelly said one thing that got me thinking, “I have some unfinished business.” When he made that statement I think all Duck fans’ reactions were almost unanimously…ecstatic.
While I too was happy Kelly was staying, it was not my first reaction. I was still hung up on his words; “I have unfinished business.” My very first thought after those powerful words was, “You are not the only one with unfinished business.” If any program at Oregon has unfinished business, it is men’s basketball. Let us not forget that Kelly and the football program have reached the post-season (bowl games) the last three years in the Kelly era, all three BCS games, the only team to do so in the country.
It is the Duke/North Carolina/Kentucky basketball equivalent, the assumption that every single year the team will be good enough to reach the Elite 8 or final Four, anything less than that is a disappointment. Lofty expectations, and quite the standard for success Kelly has set that the other Oregon programs have to try to match.
While the Ducks basketball team made it to and won the CBI Tournament last season, the Ducks have not made it to the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Better yet, the last time the Ducks won the Pac-10/12 Tournament was 2007, when Oregon behind tournament MVP Tajuan Porter tore USC apart with 16 points in the 81-57 championship game win. Going back further; since the 1939 national championship, the Ducks have only ever made it to the Elite Eight twice, losing both times.
The Ducks made it most recently to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, where they lost to Mississippi State in the opening round 76-69. The Ducks previously made it to the Elite Eight in 2007 where they took on a tough Florida Gators team led by Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer. The Ducks surely did not have the talent Florida had, but the Ducks held on for most of the game but would lose 85-77, thanks in part to some questionable refereeing that left nearly every Oregon starter either fouled out by the end or about to be. To top it off, the Ducks have not won a national championship since “The Tall Firs” team of 1939 defeated Ohio State 46-33. I would argue, the basketball program is the one with the unfinished business, not football.
But before the Ducks can think about getting back to the Elite Eight much less any spot in the NCAA Tournament, the Ducks had to take care of business last Saturday against UCLA, which they did with a 75-68 win over the Bruins. It was not pretty, but the Ducks started their mission of taking care of business by defeating the traditional conference-powerhouse UCLA in Matt Knight Arena.
To this point, if you have read my columns, you would know that I have been asking, no, pleading(!) with E.J. Singler to step up and lead his team to victory. Last Saturday against UCLA, Singler emerged from being a slow and steady consistent 10-15 point player each night to emerging as the leader his teammates feel he should be, scoring a career-high 26 points in the victory. He also contributed with seven rebounds. If the first half of the game had to be summed into one word however, NIGHTMARE comes to mind.
There were really only two good things about the first half at Matt Knight Arena for the Ducks. The first was that the football team was in attendance, being honored at halftime for the Rose Bowl win, and was presented the Rose Bowl trophy in front of the fans. The second, fans could go up to the 200 level and have their picture taken with the Rose Bowl trophy.
The reason why the Ducks struggled early against the Bruins was not difficult to figure out. Oregon was simply out-sized by UCLA. Starter David Wear is 6’10, 225 pounds. His brother and fellow starter Travis Wear is 6’10, 220 pounds. Big man Josh Smith is 6’10, 305 pounds. Because of the size, Oregon was simply outmatched in the paint and quickly fell behind early 13-4. Dana Altman screamed for a timeout.
In following Dana Altman very closely, I can honestly say I have never seen him this upset with the team. Red in the face does not even begin to describe the intensity included in this timeout. Prior to the timeout the Ducks were 1-6 shooting, and all of their shots came from outside. UCLA went 6-7 in this stretch. However, red-faced and all, whatever Altman said to the team in the 30 second timeout worked. The Ducks brought the score to within four at 16-12. During the run Devoe Joseph led the team with six points.
In summing up the first half of play, the Ducks just simply could not find the basket. The Ducks trailed 31-18 with only a couple minutes left before halftime, with all signs of a blowout already in full effect. At that point the Ducks were a dismal 6-27 shooting (23%) and the Bruins also dominated on the boards, out-rebounding Oregon 23-15. However in the last two minutes of the half the Ducks went on a 21-12 run to bring the halftime score to 37-24. The Ducks shot a nauseating 7-31 (23%) from the field and were 2-11 (19%) from three point range while UCLA shot 53% from the floor.
If there is a trend to take from this year’s Oregon team, is that they typically start well and in the second half struggle to maintain a lead or collapse. Great victories over teams like Arizona have come in part due to dismal 2nd half shooting from the opponent and lucky breaks while Oregon desperately hung on to the leads they had built in the first half of games. This UCLA game was the complete opposite of this team’s style, a refreshing break to see an inspired play and mechanically-proficient play embody the second half rather than the first.
To put E.J. Singler’s historic game in perspective, he ended the first half with only six points. “Our focus in the first half was really bad. We would go trap and someone would rotate and they (UCLA) would make baskets” said Altman on the terrible first half play.
Now, I have talked about it only once this season, but here it is again. I have no idea what Dana Altman says to his team at halftime, and he once again refused to tell anyone what he said after the UCLA game, but whatever he said, worked magic like nothing I have ever seen before.
The Ducks came out of halftime fast and looked like a whole new team. The Ducks went on a 9-0 run to bring the score from 37-24 to 37-33. Senior leader Garrett Sim gave the Ducks back-to-back 3 point makes to lead the run for the Ducks. After a Ben Howland timeout Oregon continued with a 15-2 run and tied the game at 39 behind none other than E.J. Singler. Big man Tony Woods was inspired by Singler’s play and effort. Woods came into the game off the timeout and registered back-to-back blocks and after the second block ran the floor and got the ball to a wide open Singler who knocked down the three, making the crowd go nuts.
UCLA was not intimidated though and mounted a 5-0 run of their own to take a 44-39 lead. Still, a game that looked to be a laugher in the first half was now in the balance, both teams competitive.
If the fast-paced, newly inspired Ducks team did not inspire the crowd, then the event during an Oregon timeout surely did. During the timeout the arena played the “Kiss Cam” and the spotlight was on Chip Kelly and The Duck. Without missing a beat, The Duck gave Kelly an enormous smooch that got the crowd pumped up and energized, and even surprised Chip Kelly probably more so than the coaching offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that became very public the following day.
With all the fan excitement from the kiss heard ’round Eugene, the Ducks came out of the timeout and surged to a 60-57 lead with just under four minutes to play. The Ducks also got UCLA in foul trouble and were in the bonus for the final three and a half minutes of the game, proving to be vital down the stretch as Oregon made 20-24 (83%) free throws in the second half. The Ducks would seal the victory going on a 20-7 run in the final three minutes. And of course of all players, it was E.J. Singler’s two free throw conversions with under 30 seconds to play that was the final nail in the coffin for the 75-68 win over UCLA.
After a miserable first half, Oregon cleaned up everything, shooting 50% from the field in the second half and going from 18% to 55% from 3-point range in the 2nd half. E.J. Singler’s 20 point second half performance was the biggest factor for the Ducks win against UCLA.
Dana Altman has spent the last three weeks saying the Ducks need to be a better rebounding team, despite UCLA’s size advantage it appeared that the Ducks have listened intently to overcome any size deficiencies with pure effort in the paint. Both UCLA and Oregon finished the game with 37 rebounds apiece. The win over UCLA was crucial because this is the first time that an Altman-led Oregon program has won four-consecutive conference games.
The last time the Ducks won four conference games in a row was the 2006-07 season when the Aaron Brooks led 16th ranked Ducks took down the #1-ranked UCLA Bruins to start a five game conference win streak.
Civil War Preview: Oregon vs. Oregon State
When: Sunday January 29.2012. 3:30 p.m. Root Sports
Where: Matt Knight Arena. Eugene, Oregon
In Oregon it is simple; there is no game more important than The Civil War. Oregon versus Oregon State; it does not get any more intense, and it does not get any more exciting regardless of overall records of the two bitter rivals. For this year’s Civil War matchup, the Ducks will stray away from their usual Thursday and Saturday game schedule. Oregon will have had an eight day rest when they take on the Beavers at Matt Knight Arena at 3:30 this Sunday.
So both teams will have plenty of time to practice and look at film of not only their own play, but their opponent as well. The two teams have played each other 335 times, Oregon State leading the series 183-152, but the Ducks have won 17 of the last 18 in Eugene. The 336th matchup of the Civil War is the most of any two programs in the country, while the football version of the Civil War is the 7th oldest rivalry in the nation.
Last season the Ducks won the first game in Corvallis 63-59 behind E.J. Singler’s team leading 16 points. In the return encounter in Eugene the Ducks blew out the Beavers 82-63 behind Jay-R Strowbridge’s career-high 26 point game. What made it most special for Strowbridge was that he had this career-high scoring, Civil War win on his 23rd birthday.
If the Ducks want to win the first of two Civil War match-ups with the Beavers this season, Oregon will have to execute the zone and press defenses throughout the game. The Ducks will need to be on their toes defensively because Oregon State is the highest scoring team in the conference at 82.7 points per game, but have the second highest turnover margin at 3.8.
The Ducks have to come up with a solid defensive scheme because the Beavers have three players in the top 15 in scoring in the Pac-12, including the Pac-12′s leading scorer in Jared Cunningham (17.8 points per game). Beaver guard Ahmad Starks is the Pac-12′s 13th leading scorer averaging 13.5 points per game. Right behind him at 15th is Beaver forward Devon Collier with 13.2 points per game.
This game will test the Ducks mentally and physically, just as the Cal game did earlier, a tough loss at home where Oregon was simply outmatched in every way. The Ducks are a better defensive team now than what they displayed in the subpar Cal performance. If the Ducks can shut down the OSU offense with the zone and press defensive schemes, then the Ducks just might be able to out-score Oregon State and take game one of the Civil War. If the Ducks defense is not being executed well, the Beavers could win with ease in the first game of the series. It is just a matter of how much finishing unfinished business means to this Ducks team.
Full Court Press Reflection:
The game against UCLA was just the second time this season that Oregon won a game when trailing at the half. Coach Altman is correct, from here on out if the Ducks are going to succeed they have got to win the rebounding battle and play tight defense. It is clear that the Ducks have an offense that can put points up in a hurry, but once again Oregon has to execute evenly on both ends of the ball to win games.
Oregon made some good defensive adjustments in the second half of the UCLA game. Instead of playing the usual 3-2, Dana Altman alternated between the zone and a full court press defense, and the full court pressure really seemed to throw the UCLA offense off which helped Oregon surge on the boards and on offense. With the Ducks win over UCLA, and Cal’s loss to Washington State; The Ducks are tied with Cal for first place in the Pac-12, both teams currently standing at 6-2.
This second half performance from the Ducks was the blue print for handling unfinished business, not just in finally getting a win over UCLA, but making a statement that they are here to win the Pac-12. Tony Woods is ready to handle some unfinished business and win the Pac-12. Are you?