Oregon Basketball and The Season of New: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldPosted by Rockne Roll on January 26th, 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.
Needless to say, it’s been a topsy-turvy week in college hoops. Louisville was crowned the top team in the country after all three remaining undefeated teams lost in the same weekend, only to be promptly unseated by Syracuse in a Big East thriller that propelled Michael Carter-Williams further into the national spotlight. Duke retook the crown, only to suffer an unprecedented 27-point beatdown at the hands of Miami. Heading into Saturday night, the next number one is anything but certain, with Michigan still in the mix and Kansas seemingly ready to take the throne for the first time this season.
The excitement has continued deep into the undercard throughout the last week. Michigan State’s upset of Ohio State makes the Big Ten race that much more interesting (not that it needed any help), and Wichita State’s win over Creighton turned the Missouri Valley from the Jays’ show to a horse race in one fell swoop. None of these, however, can top the show put on in Hinkle Fieldhouse last Saturday, a prime time game between barely-mid-major programs with the same mascot and the same aspirations come March.
When two of the best squads in the country meet in one of the most historic sports venues in any league of any sport, there are bound to be fireworks, but this contest was at “ESPN Classic” levels even before it ended. A Rotnei Clarke-less Bulldogs squad kept it tooth and nail with the kings of the West Coast Conference, Gonzaga, for 39 minutes and 57 seconds until a traveling call seemed to seal this battle of the Bulldogs. Then in came the Hinkle Magic and a kid named Roosevelt Jones grabbed the Zags’ inbounds pass, dribbled twice and launched a floater that no one heard hit the ground after swishing through the net, it’s bounce drowned out as a sea of navy and white rushed the old court to celebrate a tremendous win.
It was a fitting weekend, as a glance through hoops history will point out that January 20 marked the 45th anniversary of the “Game of the Century,” when the Houston Cougars upset John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins in the Astrodome in front of more than 50,000 fans. It marked the end of the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak at the time, but also marked the first time a regular season college game was shown on national television. The domed stadium, massive hype and nationwide audience were all harbingers of things to come, a landmark on the evolutionary path of college basketball into it’s current state.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day and farther out west, the Oregon Ducks had their own marquee match-up at Pauley Pavilion against the Bruins. This game was also close throughout, with the Ducks trailing by six at a couple points but keeping it even until the last couple minutes, when they took flight and pulled away to win by 11. More importantly, freshman Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson looked and played like top level Pac-12 guards and the Ducks’ previously porous zone defense clamped down on the Bruins in the second half.
But with every big win, there’s the possibility of a letdown, a borderline inexplicable loss afterward that sucks up the momentum of win and forces a program a step back, particularly one that is on the ascendant trajectory that Oregon has assumed. Butler had exactly this experience Wednesday night against La Salle. In a reversal of fortune, the Bulldogs were issued a one-point loss that dropped them into second place in Atlantic 10.
The Ducks looked to be wandering into a similar situation that same night. In front of quite a few empty seats for a team of their capability and standing, Oregon was simply out-hustled and out-shot in the first half of their game against the visiting Washington State Cougars. The Ducks, winners of 19 in a row at their frequently under-filled palace of a venue, were down by 10 at the half, their largest halftime deficit at home this year.
For all the talk of exciting freshman and fresh faces in this Season of New, there are times when senior leadership is the answer. This isn’t just true for Oregon; even in the one-and-done culture of high-major hoops, the best teams almost always have a senior or two who is more than capable of taking care of business when called upon; who can lift and carry the team like bars in the weight room. Oregon’s E.J. Singler has mostly led by distribution this season, having shrugged off an early season shooting slump to evolve into a play-maker who was willing to do the little things and leave the heavy scoring to Dotson, Tony Woods, Carlos Emory and others.
But sometimes leadership means stepping up, which is just what Singler did in the second half. When the Cougars threatened to erase the Ducks’ 9-0 run to start the final period, Singler drained a jumper, knocked down two treys, got to the line for two, and then assisted the next two Oregon scores to finally build a lead that the Ducks wouldn’t lose. And in another display of season-long progression, Oregon’s defense again locked down in the second. After making 7-of-13 from downtown in the first half, the Cougars missed all 11 of their second-half three point attempts, a stat which cost them the match.
The big stat for Oregon is 6-0; their Pac-12 record. The last time the Ducks won their first six conference games, construction had just barely begun on McArthur Court. “This is the first time that we have been in this position,” Singler said after the game. “This is the first time that we are the hunted instead of the hunters.” The surprising Washington Huskies, fresh off back-to-back losses and likely looking for revenge, will come hunting Saturday afternoon in what has essentially become another rivalry game. With UCLA still lurking just behind them in the standings, the Ducks know they will need to keep winning to stay in the “hunted” spot atop the conference.