Oregon Basketball and The Season of New: Breaking The Winter BlahsPosted by Rockne Roll on December 15th, 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.
December is a strange time of year in the world of college sports. There are no classes for student-athletes and, at least for the Oregon Ducks, only a few games in the space of a month leading up to the start of conference play. With the hustle and bustle of regular season tournaments ended, now is the time that teams have to solidify their rotations, offensive strategies and other nuances of the game leading up to conference season. Oregon will have some help in this regard. Between their Global Sports Classic finale (their only loss yet) and the beginning of the Pac-12 calendar, the Ducks play all but one of their games at home, and only two against teams that had a winning record last year. But even though the non-conference schedule for them and most high-major schools is now as tender as a fine Christmas roast, that doesn’t mean this time of year is without obstacles. Even in the course of winning games, there are gaping flaws to be unveiled and problems to encounter that make this time of year nerve-wracking.
Just ask the Michigan State Spartans. They needed a 22-9 run early in the second half to put away Loyola (IL) 73-61 on December 8. “ Tough game,” explained Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “We didn’t play great, but we didn’t play bad. We had some poor stretches and a couple of really foolish turnovers.” This was only the most recent of their troubles, they came very close to dumping a home contest to a very underwhelming Idaho State squad, eventually squeaking out with a 74-70 win on November 20. Kentucky has had some worse problems. After losing to Notre Dame, the Wildcats went into national ranking freefall after a subsequent 64-55 loss to Baylor. “I don’t know what you can say,” head coach John Calipari said in the press conference afterward. “The greatest thing, we had a chance to win the game. But we are still trying to teach them how to finish games, and they don’t know.” Calipari took the opportunity to discuss some of his team’s other near-misses earlier in the season. “We also could have lost to Maryland, earlier this season. We also could have lost to Morehead. Morehead had us on the ropes. What I need our players to understand is, that we are not a very good team right now and we are not individually very good.” Their woes continued in their game against Portland, which they won by a 74-46 final score that belied the fact that the game was tied nine minutes in and the Pilots stayed within 10 for much of the second half until Kentucky finally put them away.
Oregon has been, to paraphrase an old Christmas song, “muddling through somehow” as well. They’ve won their games, beating Texas-San Antonio 95-78 and downing Arkansas-Pine Bluff 80-59. But the problem hasn’t been the final scores, it’s been spurts of defensive ineffectiveness and letting teams stay close. Pine Bluff stayed within single digits throughout the first half, and San Antonio led for a solid portion of the opening period in Eugene. The Ducks’ newcomers have had no problem scoring in droves, with Damyean Dotson leading the Ducks in scoring, and Arsalan Kazemi has been a dominating low-post rebounder. But defensive energy has been a big problem according to coach Dana Altman. And senior forward E.J. Singler has been in a funk. He’s been scoring in the high single figures consistently, but was shooting only 30 percent from the field in the games against Pine Bluff and San Antonio and notched only six rebounds, six assists, 10 turnovers, and shot a combined 1-7 from deep in those two games. Bloggers and pundits have been concerned about the track Singler’s final season was taking, and when his slump would end.
But when Idaho State, the team that had gone down to the wire against the ranked Spartans, came to Matthew Knight Arena last week, the slumping Singler and the Ducks that had let lesser teams get close and stay close were nowhere to be found. After a pitched battle in the first four minutes, Singler decided to set the tone. He took a fast break pass from Kazemi, stepped to the arc and buried a three. This sparked a 19-3 run for the Ducks, and the lead continued to grow from there as Oregon players took turns banging threes. When Dotson missed his attempt from deep with four minutes left in the first half, Singler was there to leap through the lane and issue an authoritative put-back jam that brought the crowd to its feet. The halftime score was 54-16 en route to a an 87-35 win that saw the Ducks trot out their deep bench early and play their previously untested zone defense throughout much of the second half.
Singler broke his slump, coming away with seven points, a team leading nine rebounds, and five assists with zero turnovers. “I was just trying to make a difference when I was on the court,” Singler said. “Some things were happening for me tonight and I felt a lot better tonight than in the past couple weeks. I just simplified my game. I wanted to slow it down; I felt like I was rushing a lot of things in my previous games.” Singler had been pegged as the leader of this young Ducks squad early in the season, and that leadership was noticeable against the Bengals. For the first time at home, everything came together for the Ducks. Their man-to-man defense, their ball movement, their energy; with very few exceptions, all the things that Altman has been emphasizing since the beginning of the season were there, and it definitely seemed like the Ducks were ready to take the next step. “Our ball movement tonight was awesome and I think we did a really good job cutting down on their ball movement,” Altman said. “Our energy from the start was key for us. I am really happy with the way that we played tonight, we took a big stride as a team this week.”
They’ll need to keep executing through the holidays to make this kind of game the exception rather than the rule as the Ducks enter a conference season that looks to be as topsy-turvy as the last. “This is the most crucial month of the season for us,” Altman explained. “If we are going to make some noise in the Pac-12 we need to go into conference play with a good month.”