They are who we thought they were. For now.
After Sunday’s game against the California Golden Bears, there are a couple of important lessons that we learned about this Oregon Ducks basketball team. First and foremost, we learned that this Ducks team is exactly who we thought they were. They are learning to play like a cohesive team, and most importantly they are learning to grow as teammates and young men. While they are not anywhere near the level of competing with say Duke or North Carolina in a final four, but they are also not anywhere near where the “experts” picked them to be at this point in the season now well into conference play; towards the bottom of the conference.
The next opportunity to prove themselves was a lesson of “if’s” and “maybe’s” not going Oregon’s way Sunday night against Cal. For example, if the gimpy Allen Crabbe had not played as expected, and scored a season high 26-points, maybe the outcome would have favored the Ducks. If Cal freshman star guard, and potential Pac-12 rookie-of-the-year, Jorge Gutierrez chose a school other than Cal, maybe the outcome would be different. And if the Ducks took care of the ball and not committed 14 turnovers, four of which came on the Ducks first few possessions to start the second half, maybe the outcome would have been different.
“We were just not focusing on tempo. We just didn’t execute our plan. We’ll bounce back and go back to the drawing board after this one” said Dana Altman about the Ducks’ turnovers. If the Ducks just chose better and more cautious shots, the outcome would be different. What-ifs can plague a program, the mental weariness of remorse over failure to maximize on opportunity is sometimes more damaging than any physical ailment.
In the 77-60 loss to Cal, the Ducks had a very poor shooting night. In the first half the Ducks only made 10 of 32 shots, ending the first half misery with a lowly 31% shooting pct. The second half for the Ducks was slightly better, as they upped it to 46% on 13-28 from the field. By game’s end, going 23-60 from the field simply was not enough to get it done against a difficult Cal squad.
However, it wasn’t all bad for this emerging Oregon team showing signs of growing pains yet with a respectable 11-5 record on the year thus far, there were quite a few bright spots in the loss to Cal. Sophomore guard Devoe Joseph stepped up once again for the Ducks, leading the team with 14 points. Joseph’s ongoing emergence as a go-to scoring threat is incredibly encouraging for Oregon. With yet another solid showing against Cal, Devoe Joseph has finished nine of the last 10 games in double-figures.
E.J. Singler was right behind Joseph, scoring 12 points. Most importantly for Singler, this was his thirteenth game out of sixteen total where he has reached double-figure scoring, a consistent presence to rely on for an otherwise somewhat inconsistent squad. Olu Ashaolu contributed again with a double-figure night as well, racking up 10 points and five rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end.
At first glance, a bad loss to a good conference opponent is understandable for such a young team. It was said that with this loss, Oregon took a step back, a team still searching for chemistry and an identity. But amidst the treacherous pitfalls of the Pac-12 schedule, it is sometimes difficult to realize the monumental step forward this basketball program has taken from one year ago to present day.
Bad 38% shooting nights are going to happen from time to time against good opponents, especially teams that are still learning and growing under the tutelage of Coach Altman as he painstakingly takes another coach’s recruits and converts them into his team. Altman made the comment after the game that a reason for the bad shooting and turnovers was simply because this team has “not learned to trust their teammates and offense,” which is understandable for such a young squad facing mass attrition over the past two seasons and adjusting to a new system.
While the Ducks are learning valuable lessons that will potentially take them to that next level, there is something very important still missing from this team. Through a good chunk of the season and conference play this season, the 2011-2012 Oregon Ducks Mens Basketball team has one glaring flaw; a clear and obvious team leader. The vivid memories of the CBI tournament last year remain clear, when Joevan Catron willed the Ducks to victory, carrying an under-manned squad from cellar-dweller to respectable mid-tier conference finish, the shocking victory over UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament, and the impressive (considering the circumstances) CBI championship over Creighton. Little to nothing was expected from last season, but Catron almost single-handedly pushed Oregon to achieve well beyond expectations.
While almost every member of the starting lineup this season averages in double figures and the overall talent level is an improvement over last year’s version of the Ducks, there has yet to be that one player that stands up and says; “I am going to get the ball and win the game for this team, no matter what it takes.” It would appear that E.J. Singler is supposed to be that leader, and is for the most part, as he is usually leading the team in points in most games. The problem is that he seems to be the only one who has either not realized he is the team leader, or just he just simply is not embracing or accepting that his teammates look to him to be that leader.
If the Ducks are going to get to that next level of being great, both E.J. Singler and Dana Altman have got to realize that Singler is the guy that should have the ball in his hands at crucial points in games. If it’s a matter of Singler not realizing his role as a leader or intimidated to take the team on his back the way Catron did, Dana Altman now has to work his great coaching magic and teach Singler to be that leader that the team needs him to be in order to succeed.
There is still time for Oregon to make these adjustments and embrace these lessons, but they have got to do it soon if they hope to successfully compete in the field of 64 in March. Fortunately for the Ducks the Pac-12 is quite bi-polar this year in that teams can be really good, or really bad on any given night, with the Ducks perhaps the most hit-or-miss of them all.
As it stands right now, Colorado is the only undefeated team in conference play at 3-0. They are followed by Stanford, Cal, Washington, and Arizona with one loss each, while Oregon sits at 2-2. In other words, this Oregon Ducks team is who we thought they were, a mid-Pac 12 team fighting to get better but unsure of how to take that next step to consistently compete head-to-head with top-tier talent. This conference is still wide open and the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles should be very entertaining this year, where Oregon could yet again surprise a favored opponent or two with little expectations for them to make much noise.
I am going to respectfully disagree with the notion that the Ducks took a step back against Cal, an underwhelming performance before a television audience anticipating Altman’s scrappy team to put up a fight. This game against Cal brought the lesson of needing to trust each other on and off the court. If the Ducks can realize, accept, and use this lesson in games, then they can easily make it to the next level of becoming great.
If the team can learn to trust each other, then the Oregon fans will learn to trust them, believe in them, and most importantly come fill up Matt Knight Arena. The Matt needs that Mac spirit. The trust with the fans has already begun as 7,400 people filled Matt Knight Arena on the night before winter quarter began for Oregon students. It is simple; “If you build it (trust), they will come” and Sunday night, Matt Knight Arena showed that to be true.
Now Altman’s boys take their act on the road testing their mettle when away from Matt Knight Arena, starting with last night’s away game at ASU (a quality 67-58 victory over the Sun Devils) and a matchup Saturday with Arizona before returning home for three games at the Matt to play the Los Angeles schools and OSU. With 13 regular season Pac-12 games left on the schedule, there is plenty of time for Oregon to learn from life’s lessons both on and off the court.
Whether they succeed amidst adversity like last year again is yet to be seen, but the energy and enthusiasm from Oregon’s improbable run last year is still lingering in the air, the players are competing, and if proper leadership emerges this team could once more inspire. Regardless of the final outcome of this season however the story ends, what remains clear is that despite adversity and occasionally tough-to-watch nights, Oregon is showing steady improvement and could be a major player in the Pac-12 conference sooner rather than later.
The Oregon Ducks got back on track Thursday night with a 67-58 victory over Arizona State in Tempe, AZ, with their former coach Ernie Kent handling the color commentary on the broadcast. The Ducks displayed a much more accurate shooting stroke and good ball movement to streak past ASU late after the Sun Devils had briefly taken the lead in the 2nd half.
Up next for Oregon, a Saturday matchup in Tucson, AZ vs. Arizona. The game will tip-off at 12:30pm, broadcast by CBS. Watch the following for a full preview of the pending matchup between the Ducks and Wildcats.