It took a little time on Saturday night at the Moda Center for both the Ducks and their fans to come alive. Make no mistake: the atmosphere was festive, with a crowd of yellow and (in Illinois’ case) orange-clad fans enjoying a back-and-forth game from wire to wire. But by the final whistle, it was clearer than ever that this year’s team is shaping up to be something special.
After the two teams played an evenly matched first half – with the athleticism and sharpshooting of Oregon’s guard play matched by the size and rebounding prowess of Illinois’ frontcourt – in the second half the Big 10 squad had become the first to establish a sizable lead. Until then, halfway through the second half, the mood inside the arena had been not especially raucous. Yet when Dana Altman’s squad rallied, with Elgin Cook’s dunk cutting the Illinois lead to 54-52 at just over the eight-minute mark of the second half, the fans were on their feet.
Perhaps it also has taken these first few weeks of the season for Oregon fans to fully realize the promise these 2013-14 Ducks hold. After all, spirits had been dampened by the suspension of two players, including talented point guard Dominic Artis. The team also had big shoes to fill after losing two of last year’s best players, E.J. Singler and Arsalan Kazemi. But Altman has recruited well, and his transfers have made up for those departures and then some.
December is usually a time when Ducks faithful are focused on the football team, which has played in marquee January BCS bowl games the past four years. But as this year’s football season came to a disappointing conclusion with an Alamo Bowl invitation, these hoopsters have started to give fans hope on the hardwood that didn’t quite pan out on the turf.
Though credit is due to Illinois, which had a taller team that enjoyed a consistent rebounding edge, for stretches of the first and early second halves Oregon seemed to be playing too sloppily and not unselfishly enough to record a win over a top-tier Big 10 basketball team such as this one. Yet stellar guard play from Joseph Young, Jonathan Lloyd and Damyean Dotson kept the Ducks neck and neck with Illinois. At one point, Oregon guards had 25 of the team’s 37 points. Once Artis returns, the talent pool will be even greater. And it takes great guard play to win in the NCAA tournament.
There was also promise in how Oregon turned up its defensive intensity following Illinois’ early second half run. The Ducks used their superior athleticism to overcome a bigger team. Though Oregon’s size disadvantage versus the Illini may expose a weakness when they face the biggest and most talented opponents in March, the play of 6’8” forward Mike Moser gives the team a more than capable successor to departed Kazemi. In fact, Moser is a better scorer.
No doubt it’s still very early in the college basketball season. Oregon has yet to even begin conference play. Yet the depth of this team, especially at the guard position, may be comparable or even superior to most any in team history.
If nothing else, the talent and undefeated status of Altman’s team gives Oregon fans reason to dream again. Altman’s team doesn’t have to deal with the same pressure of expectations the football team has, even though they’re coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament. Yet after this undefeated start, and a win over a quality Big 10 opponent that itself played in March last year, we can realistically imagine a trip back to the Sweet 16 or potentially going deeper.
With a little luck, maybe this game at the Moda Center could be a turning point of sorts, and one that would explain the metamorphosis the Oregon crowd underwent over the course of the night: when we go from thinking this could be a good team to imagining it becoming a great one.
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
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