The Full Court Press: Oregon Basketball – The Preseason, Part I

Almost open for business.

For Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks men’s basketball program, the future is imminent and imperative. For the second season in a row, Oregon finished competing in a national tournament…just not THE national tournament.

In 2011, Altman defeated his former program, Creighton, in a three-game series to win the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournament.

Last season the program made its 10th overall appearance in the postseason National Invitation Tournament (NIT), falling to top-seed Washington in the quarterfinal round to end the 2011-2012 campaign. It was the first time since 2004 the Ducks played in the NIT.

Oregon is now 13-11 overall in NIT games, advancing to the NIT semifinals on three separate occasions (1975, 1999, 2004). For the second consecutive season, they finished the regular season tied for second place (with California) in the Pac-12 standings. It was UO’s best conference record since the 2001-02 season, when the Ducks won the regular-season crown with a 14-4 league mark.

Almost half of Oregon’s league wins last season came on the road (6-3), proving the Ducks to be one of the top road teams in the Pac-12–the other 11 schools a combined 33-of-79 (.295) in road games. Oregon’s 6-3 road mark was its best since the 1999-00 season, when the Ducks also went 6-3 in conference play. In addition, The Altman-led program has racked up back-to-back 20-win seasons. Not bad for a program that was torn down to its foundation following the Ernie Kent firing, players leaving, the strains of implementing a new system causing more to leave, and the construction of an all-new arena to house the revamped Ducks.

These are all good things, and all point to good things. The problem?

Dana Altman and the team have made it utterly clear that they are in the here and now, not the then and there. Altman made that abundantly vibrant just by laying out his off-season recruiting plan. For starters, he had four-star, 6’8″ power forward Chris Obekpa (NY) within his grasp, but Obekpa chose to stay close to home and play at St. Johns.

That was fine, Altman still held a couple aces at the recruiting poker table. The work the program has put into rebuilding itself is evident to those close to the university and team. Critical basketball minds outside of Oregon are aware of the vast changes going on as well.

Oregon was able to attract the attention of five-star top-10 recruit, Anthony Bennett. The 6’7″ power forward from Henderson, Nev. was ranked as high as seventh on the ESPN 100 list. Bennett’s list consisted of Kentucky, UNLV and Oregon. In the end, like Chris Obekpa, Bennett chose to stay close to home, joining the UNLV Rebels.

Dealer says it’s time to call. Dealer discovers Dana Altman has quite the poker face. So much so, that while he didn’t leave the table with his two dream recruits, he still walked away with quite the prize. The recruiting class that he did come away with is more impressive than it looks.

After all, Altman is the guy who left a tough table in Toronto with two guys named Devoe Joseph and Olu Ashaolu–two players whose previous schools thought were cause to fold.

One man’s athletic trash becomes Dana Altman’s treasure.

Case and point; The Ducks have a senior who sat aimlessly on the bench for Ernie Kent. He also grew up in his older brother’s shadow and was always asked, “are you going to be as good as, or better than your brother?”

E.J. Singler’s answer: Nah, I’m just going to be E.J.

And for the last three seasons, it’s all Dana Altman has needed from the younger Singler. Last season, he ranked second nationally and led the Pac-12 Conference in free throw percentage (.909, 110-of-121). His career percentage currently ranks first in school history (.875, 265-of-303).

Singler enters the 2012-13 season as the conference’s active career leader in points (1,114), while ranking third in both rebounds (546) and 3-pointers made (131). Singler reached double-figures in scoring in 28-of-34 games last season. He has scored 10 or more points in 62 of his 105 career games. He also led the Ducks in rebounding on twelve occasions last year (34 times in his career). Singler was one of two Ducks to start every game in 2011-12.

Seven different Ducks led the team in scoring last season: Devoe Joseph (thirteen times), E.J. Singler (nine times), Garrett Sim (seven times), Olu Ashaolu (three times), Carlos Emory and Tony Woods (two times each) and Johnathan Loyd (one time). The intriguing part of this in terms of 2012-2013 is that four of those seven have graduated and moved on.

Singler, who is no stranger to challenges, will have yet another this year: being the senior leader while trying to mentor what appears to be a young, but skilled squad. While E.J. Singler becomes the elder statesman of the group, look for the E.J. Singler of old, not an old E.J. Singler, in 2012-2013.

EJ makes his mark.

Similar to the UO volleyball team, men’s basketball has quite the schedule. Amongst teams like Nevada-Las Vegas, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas-El Paso and a Pac-12 slate that features 18 televised contests; it is a schedule that features a rough early-season tournament.

Oregon opens the regular season with game one of the Global Sports Classic, hosting Northern Arizona on Nov. 10 in Jacksonville, Fla.

However, the most interesting non-conference matchup will come on November 16th. On that Friday night Oregon gets its highly anticipated rematch against Vanderbilt, and this time it goes down in Eugene at Matt Knight Arena.

The Ducks faced Vandy in their 2011-2012 season opener and were on the heartbroken end of a 78-64 loss in Nashville when the Commodores were ranked No. 7 in the nation. The game was much closer than the score indicates.

The Ducks rematch against their NIT semifinal and conference rival Washington Huskies, will come on January 26 at The Matt.

Last year the Ducks offense ranked 14th in the nation, with Dana Altman using a hybrid of the Kent-Westhead up-tempo offense and a more balanced attack.

The problem for Oregon a year ago was the defense, the program ranking an abysmal 158th in the country. With a bit of blunt honesty, it’s in part because the defensive game plan lacked consistency. The team had no identity and no signature defense.

Jim Boeheim is notorious for running the BEST 2-3 zone defense anyone at any basketball level has ever seen. Here’s an example that hits closer to home: Craig Robinson at Oregon State. Robinson has brought national attention to his defense. He runs the extremely rare and bizarre-looking 1-3-1 Princeton defense that in fact, killed Oregon for a full half and some of the second half in their first meeting last year.

It damaged the UO offensive scheme because Robinson stuck with it. He even went as far as to reveal that he planned on using it in a televised press conference, which is coach for, “here’s what I’m doing, I dare you to stop it.”

The point is that Oregon is yet to find that defensive distinctiveness and stick with it. They finally found a glimpse of a potential identity towards the end of last season, playing Colorado in Eugene. The Ducks came out of the first half trailing the Buffaloes when Dana Altman had his lineup switch to the full court press. The defensive switch was executed well, confused Colorado, and helped the Ducks come back and win the game.

Two days later against Utah, Oregon trailed coming out of halftime again. For the second contest in a row, the Ducks went to the full court press and won the game.

The full court press seems to work for Oregon. If they work on it regularly, it has the potential to create more wins. But the team has to stop sampling from the defensive buffet and get consistent. The full court press can be costly however, if it’s faced with a fast up-tempo team that can out run the defense. But Oregon’s offense is THAT up-tempo team, so the two sides should, in theory, be able to figure out a way to make it work.

A new season is coming—fast. If they are going to surpass the NIT and CBI with regularity, and be one of the 64 teams selected to the national tournament–a new, consistent defensive formula must be generated.

To start out 2012-2013 Dana Altman has also had to become a miraculous poker player. He’s probably, if you’re keeping count, lost more hands than he’s won, more so on the recruiting end than the coaching end. He’s lost a surprising amount of players (transferring elsewhere) and top notch recruits.

But if you’ve watched Altman talk about it with the media, it appears as though the thought is out of his mind just as quickly as he absorbs the news. If that’s not the case, we’d never know, because he doesn’t show it. The start to the new year of basketball has been promising, but problematic (recruits and defense).

The coaching staff has to find a way to turn a defense, whose national number is low enough to name a new freeway, into one that can help the program merge onto Highway 64, the first step towards leading hopefully someday to the national championship.

The 2012-2013 season is a new poker table for Dana Altman that seats only the best challengers. In less than two months it’ll be time to “call.” In the three years he has led the program, one thing has been crystal clear: Neither Dana Altman or the men who play for him know how to fold.

Dana Altman knows when to hold 'em, but he doesn't know when to fold 'em. Simply because he doesn't have to.

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