Oregon Basketball and The Season of New: Exhibiting Some FlawsPosted by Rockne Roll on November 8th, 2012
Welcome to Oregon Basketball and The Season of New, a weekly Pac-12 microsite column from Rockne Roll (@raroll). His column will focus on the various issues facing college basketball through the prism of the Oregon Ducks, a program ostensibly on the rise with top-notch facilities and coaching but still subject to many of the same problems suffered by many of the other high-major programs around the country.
College basketball is frequently a topsy-turvy world. Indeed, one of the great draws of the NCAA Tournament is its unpredictability. Just ask fans of Lehigh or Norfolk State, who saw their teams upset two-seeds in the first round last year, or supporters of Syracuse, a team that needed a late rally to avoid being the first #1 to be picked off by a #16 in the 64-team era. But at the outset of each year, before the “season” has even technically begun, there’s more of an order to things. For these exhibition games, teams from Divisions II and III and the NAIA hit the road to play in gyms that can hold their entire student body five times over. These schools receive a healthy payday in exchange for the chance to start their seasons getting trounced by a high-major Division I squad. There are big benefits to these games for their big-time hosts. Besides selling tickets (and concessions and merchandise and et cetera) a team can try out new lineups, new plays, and new people, in a fairly risk free environment. The beauty of the exhibition game is that it doesn’t count win or lose; if everything goes wrong, the only thing lost is pride.
Or is it? For the past few years, at least one Division I team has dropped an exhibition match. Some take it in stride like the 2010-11 Xavier Musketeers, who bounced back from an exhibition loss to nearly run the table in the A-10 and take a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Others, like Tennessee the same year, go on to finish .500 in conference play and sneak into the Big Dance only to suffer a 30-point loss in the first round. It happens more than you might think. Over the past 15 years of regular season play (not counting exhibitions), Division I teams have dropped 232 games to non-Division I opponents.
Coming into last Friday night, the Miami Hurricanes were predicted to have one of their best seasons ever. There was little to no concern about their sole exhibition match against Division II Saint Leo University. That is, except from ‘Canes head coach Jim Larranaga. “You play like you practice, and if we play like this tomorrow night, you guys are going to be very disappointed in the results,” he said to his team after one practice. The Lions were kind enough to demonstrate the point for him. After jumping out to an early lead, Saint Leo held on through a Miami comeback, and eventually earned a 69-67 win.
Oregon Duck fans may have been pondering such a fate about midway through the first half of their final exhibition match against Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State on Monday evening. After five minutes, the Ducks were leading by five, getting a good showing from senior star E.J. Singler in his first game of the season. A minute later, that lead was gone, and within another minute they trailed by five. The rest of the first half was practically a comedy of errors. In one particular sequence, Singler was knocked down in the lane trying to draw a charge from SWOSU’s Ante Bozic, whose short jumper was then swat-blocked by Oregon center Tony Woods towards the sideline. The Ducks’ freshman point guard Dominic Artis then dived to save the ball from going out and tipped it into the hands of the Bulldog’s Ryan Donahoe. A quick pass from Donahoe led to a wide-open three for Marin Zelaliga, one of 10 three-pointers the Bulldogs would pound through the Ducks’ shaky perimeter defense. However, things tightened up in the second half, and Oregon’s 22 points off of 12 second half turnovers for SWOSU was too much to overcome, so the Ducks claimed an 82-65 victory to cap off their exhibition season.
This, of course is the more typical result of an exhibition match. Kansas’ 62-50 defeat of Division II Washburn the same night was comparatively close, especially next to the 74-28 final score in Kentucky’s Monday night decimation of its neighbor, Transylvania. “Our offense stunk,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after that win. It was just beyond bad. Our offense was just miserable.” Self’s comments highlight the importance of the exhibition calendar: to find the kinds of problems that only present themselves at game speed before those games count.
Oregon coach Dana Altman found a big issue for his squad in the form of defensive execution. “We’re making a lot of fundamental mistakes we’ve got to clean up,” he said. “We gave up a lot of easy baskets because of [lack of] communication and bad rotations.” Frequently there’s just as much for a coach to learn as there is for his players. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is no exception. “This is the first time we’ve played a 40-minute game so I don’t know how to sub yet with my team,” he said after his team’s exhibition opener, a 105-87 victory over last year’s Division II national champion Western Washington. “You’re kind of doing things where you learn about your team while the game goes on.”
The challenge posed by SWOSU, and the urgency that their first half lead presented, was not lost on Singler. “You can’t take any game for granted,” he explained afterward. “Knowing that, each game, people are going to come in and give you their best shot, it definitely shows us that we’ve got to play a little bit tougher.” But the exhibitions are over now. The Ducks still have plenty to learn, but starting Saturday, they’ll have to learn while it counts as they kick off the regular season. “These two exhibition games were good for us, they’re good learning experiences,” Singler concluded.