Oregon Basketball and The Season of New: The End of the BeginningPosted by Rockne Roll on January 6th, 2013
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.
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” –Winston Churchill
At the beginning of college basketball every year, it’s a circus; 340-plus teams criss-crossing the country to play each other, as well as games by Division I squads against their less heralded colleagues from the lower levels of the hoops hierarchy. There are regular season tournaments, featured games like ESPN’s ACC/Big Ten challenge, and (as previously discussed in this column) mid-majors going on the road and getting shellacked by power conference schools to make a few bucks. Buried somewhere in this mix for the big schools are a couple of games that serve as a real test of a squad’s development and capabilities.
Oregon played such a game earlier this week, ending its non-conference slate against Nevada at home. The Wolf Pack were just such a team; they went 13-1 against last year’s WAC and made the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Stanford. They pressured the Ducks defensively and scored 20 points off Oregon’s 20 turnovers. But Oregon’s defense held Nevada to 13 percent shooting from downtown and just 14 first half points for a final score of 56-43. Singler went on the podium after the game and personally took credit for the turnover problem. “We had been really trying to limit out turnovers, and most of them, it was on me.” The box score agreed; Singler coughed it up seven times during the match. “I’ve got to clean it up a lot, be stronger with the ball. We’re going to need to pick it up once Pac-12 starts.” But even beyond just the turnovers, Oregon’s ball movement wasn’t working, and without good ball movement, Oregon’s offense grinds to a halt. “Offensively, the ball movement just wasn’t there. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I thought we’d gotten some things worked out with out ball movement,” explained head coach Dana Altman. But one of the differences in this year’s Oregon squad is its defense. The Ducks are currently sporting their lowest field goal percentage defense in six years, and regularly force their opponents deep into shot clocks. “We had a couple times we had some great possessions. Our rotations were really good, out adjustments were really good. For the most part, our defense was pretty good.”
But even before the players had gotten out of their uniforms for the last time in non-conference play, the beginning of the Pac-12 season was prominent on their minds. They weren’t the only ones in the conference thinking about the coming of league play. “Obviously now, we are ready to turn the page to start Pac-12 play,” said Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek after ASU’s last non-conference contest. His Sun Devils jumped out to an 11-2 non-conference record, already winning more games then they did all of last year, and they went on to beat Utah in their first conference tilt of the season. “Sure, our non-conference record sort of gets set on a mantle, hopefully a lot of good lessons well learned, some good habits well formed, but in college basketball when you get into the conference, everything kind of gets reset, and then it happens again when you get into the conference tournament. College basketball has three seasons within one,” he explained.
And each of those seasons is more intense than the one before. Just ask Sean Miller, whose Arizona squad got a controversial call in their favor to force overtime in their very first conference game of the season. After Colorado’s game winner was waved off on replay and the Wildcats were able to force overtime, Arizona used the extra time to display clearly why it is undefeated and ranked third in the country, winning 92-83. This isn’t Arizona’s first brush with extremely close games, but the call could have gone either way and the ‘Cats had to fight back from a steep deficit to even force OT. Miller gave credit to another feature of conference play: a good, die-hard audience. “I thought our crowd especially in the last 12 minutes didn’t give up. Sometimes with crowds people leave the game or are disenchanted that we could lose a home game and leave. One of the great things about the McKale crowd is that they stay until the finish.”
Speaking of intense, what could be more intense than starting off conference play with one of the most frequently contested rivalries in college basketball? For the 338th time, the Ducks will face off with the Beavers of Oregon State. It will be one of the first conference rivalry games played this season, and while it’s not as intense as the Border War or Tobacco Road, it’s a big deal to Oregonians and, in a year where both schools’ basketball programs are really starting to find their footing, to the conference at large. The impact of the game isn’t lost on OSU coach Craig Robinson. “When I was a freshman coach in this league, I had no idea what this meant. No matter how many times people told me how important this game was and what a spectacle that it is, I could not imagine it,” Robinson said at his weekly press conference on January 2. “It really took me two years. The second year I really knew it. Because after you do it for a year and you walk around the state for a whole year and you listen to the people who have the bragging rights or don’t have the bragging rights, you realize how important a game this is for everybody.” “It’ll be a tough game Sunday, no doubt.” Altman said after the win over Nevada, but he was already looking further ahead. “We come back and play the number three team in the country, and then we’ve got to go to UCLA, who’s been playing better. We’ve got a very difficult start to the season, conference-wise.”
And while Oregon has a tough schedule to play through on it’s way to Vegas, the site of this year’s Pac-12 tournament, so does everyone else, as the conference that narrowly avoided sending only one team to the Dance last year looks improved both at the top and in the middle. Which of those categories the Ducks fall into will be determined over the next two months, starting Sunday night.