Oregon Thrives on Offense, Dumps Illinois Despite Defensive Rebounding Struggles

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 15th, 2013

The Oregon Ducks have gotten off to their undefeated start in 2013-14 primarily on the strength of their staggeringly efficient offense. The Ducks ranked third in the nation in effective field goal percentage and were seventh in the nation in free throw rate before Saturday night’s game against Illinois at the former Rose Garden in Portland.

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Oregon Stayed Unbeaten on Saturday Night in Portland

Aspects of Oregon’s defense are also strong, including a top-50 steal rate and a top-75 block rate. But one thing stands out in the Ducks’ statistical profile: a lack of proficiency on the defensive glass. Despite only playing one top-25 offensive rebounding team this season (San Francisco), Oregon ranks a pedestrian 235th in defensive rebounding rate. Against the Illini, that vulnerability showed up early – six offensive rebounds surrendered in the first half, which ended tied at 32 – and late, when they got a rebound putback from Joseph Bertrand to close the game within three points with less than a minute to go. But Oregon’s scoring was able to again cover for its defensive rebounding deficiency in a 71-64 win.

Oregon (9-0) certainly misses graduated senior transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who led the nation in defensive rebounding rate in 2012-13, but another senior transfer is attempting to fill that void. Mike Moser – a Portland native who previously played at both UCLA and UNLV – has led the Ducks on the defensive glass all season, including a team-high eight Saturday night, which also came with 14 points, tied for the team lead with fellow senior transfer Joseph Young. The performance of the 6’8” power forward Saturday is made more impressive when considering that Illinois’ starting frontcourt of Nnanna Egwu, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand each gather eight percent or more of available offensive rebounds, and the Illini ranked 36th nationally in offensive rebound rate before the game.

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Who Won The Week? Shabazz Napier, Memphis and Villanova…

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 6th, 2013

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game. But he’s not biking anywhere with a sub-zero wind chill. 

WINNER: Shabazz Napier

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America's top player, and being Who Won The Week's top winner.

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America’s top player, and being Who Won The Week’s top winner.

The stellar UConn guard and his team only played one game last week, matching up against a ranked Florida squad. And Napier stole the show. Including the buzzer-beating free-throw-line fadeaway for the 65-64 win, the junior guard finished Monday night’s game in Storrs with 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting and a game-high three steals. It’s impressive to think that Kemba Walker’s backup backcourt mate during the Huskies’ 2011 title run has a solid case in being judged the best player in college basketball this season. If he keeps playing at his current level – the senior guard averages 16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game – he could solidify that claim by the end of the year. Of course, some more luck coming his team’s way couldn’t hurt; including Monday’s game, three of the Huskies’ eight wins have come by a single point.

LOSER: Florida

Already down the services of Eli Carter for the year and freshman five-star recruit Kasey Hill for a couple more weeks due to injuries, Billy Donovan’s Gators could ill afford to lose another point guard. Bad news in Gainesville: Starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin is expected to be out indefinitely after sustaining a similar injury with three minutes left in Florida’s aforementioned loss to UConn. Wilbekin, who already missed five regular-season games due to an offseason suspension, was tough enough to replace as the starting point guard when Florida’s second and third options at the position were healthy. Instead, the Gators face an onslaught of Kansas and Memphis back-to-back on the next two Tuesdays.

To give credit where it’s due, the 67-66 home win over rival Florida State last week is nothing to sneeze at, though Wilbekin did have seven points, eight assists and five steals in that match-up.

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The Toughest Team Always Wins: A Navy SEAL Teaches Toughness

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on November 21st, 2013

The toughest team always wins.

The visiting Virginia Commonwealth Rams have the ball under their own basket with 9.8 seconds to go, moments after a free throw from Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon tied the game at 56.

“C’mon, you guys, you can do this,” former Navy SEAL John McGuire thought as he sat directly behind VCU’s bench. “Focus.”

Rams point guard Rob Brandenburg brings the ball past halfcourt, cuts to his right and passes to shooting guard Treveon Graham above the top of the key. Graham launches a three-pointer from nearly 30 feet away, snapping the net with just three seconds remaining. The Cavaliers miss a final-second heave.

Just like McGuire taught them.

McGuire, who rode on the Rams’ bus to Charlottesville and gave the pregame speech, has worked with coach Shaka Smart’s team since just after the Final Four run in 2011. The former sniper instructor now runs SEAL Team Physical Training, a Richmond, Virginia, business that focuses on fitness and team-building exercises, including for athletic teams. Smart found out about SEAL Team PT through word of mouth and called McGuire in November 2010, asking about his philosophies on teamwork and building leaders. “I think he liked what he heard,” McGuire said.

Since beginning work with VCU, SEAL Team PT has worked with nine Division I men’s basketball programs, along with college football, lacrosse, women’s basketball and baseball teams. Last offseason, McGuire personally worked with VCU, Toledo and Illinois, teams that are a combined 10-0 in 2013-14.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

McGuire prides himself on taking people out of their comfort zones with his drills, many of them taken from his Navy SEAL training. Working on an unfamiliar task levels the playing field. It forces the people taking part to work together, lead, be confident and communicate. Players are usually divided into teams for their tasks, which can include anything from push-ups and running to carrying a sandbag or rowing a boat together. Given the limited time constraints afforded McGuire by NCAA rules – sometimes his training sessions are as short as three one-hour sessions within a week – cultivating chemistry and rapport is at the top of his task list.

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How Do Fans Feel About Increased Fouling? A Q&A with a VCU Superfan Chris Crowley

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 12th, 2013

After college basketball had spent the greater part of the last two decades getting more physical and watching scoring decline, the NCAA decided to act this past offseason by re-emphasizing rules against hand-checking and other physical perimeter play in an attempt to speed the game up and increase scoring. For some teams, this increased emphasis will have an outsized impact, none more than VCU. The Rams’ smothering, pressing Havoc defense used to be something nobody wanted to go to war with, leading the nation in steal percentage for each of the last two seasons, according to KenPom.com. To get some perspective on the rule changes, I talked with Rams superfan Chris Crowley, known as VCU Pav throughout his fan base (and most of the state of Virginia, who he frequently trolls on Twitter). A former VCU equipment manager who has crossed the country before to watch his team play, Crowley’s game day ensemble includes ram horns and a cape.

The new NCAA rules might hinder the game of Briante Weber and his teammates. (AP)

The new NCAA rules might hinder the game of Briante Weber and his teammates. (AP)

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Rush The Court: How long have you been a VCU fan? How did that start?

Chris Crowley: I started out as a manager for the basketball team from 2001 to 2004, and then decided I needed to concentrate on class a little bit more, so I decided to quit managing after my junior year. That was right around the time the Rowdy Rams (the student fan organization) were getting founded, so I jumped in with them – they were getting restarted; they were originally founded in the 1980s. We got restarted around the 2003-04 season, and I joined them in ’04-05, and the rest is history. Read the rest of this entry »

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Arizona Shows Off Its NCAA Tournament Credentials

Posted by Kenny Ocker on February 3rd, 2013

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a journalist based in the Northwest who filed this story after Arizona’s win against Washington State in Pullman on Saturday night.

Halfway through its Pac-12 schedule, Arizona looks like a team prepared to make an impact come March. The Wildcats have wiggled their way back into a tie for the Pac-12 lead with Oregon despite losing in Eugene in mid-January. The one other loss came at home to UCLA two weeks later, but neither snowballed for Arizona. Instead, the Wildcats have run straight through everything that could have derailed the momentum they built up in the non-conference season with wins over Florida, Miami and San Diego State. Even on the road against Washington State, two days after a last-possession win against Washington, with Kevin Parrom ejected for elbowing Cougars guard DaVonte Lacy in the first half and star senior guard Mark Lyons picking up three first-half fouls, Arizona barely blinked, taking a 40-26 lead into halftime in Pullman, which led to a 79-65 win.

Solomon Hill had six three-pointers in the first half to lead Arizona back into a tie for first in the Pac-12.

Solomon Hill had six three-pointers in the first half to lead Arizona back into a tie for first in the Pac-12.

But what makes Arizona so good? Is it having senior leadership? Is it having a talented offense? Is it having a stingy defense? It seems to be all of those things. On a night where Lyons picked up four fouls by the 17-minute mark of the second half and Parrom was booted, fellow senior Solomon Hill filled in the gap for Sean Miller’s squad with six three-pointers – including a three-quarter-court heave at the halftime buzzer – finishing with 18 points. For the season, the trio is averaging around 36 points per game and are three of the Wildcats’ top four scorers, along with sophomore guard Nick Johnson. Arizona’s offense is one that benefits from its best-in-the-conference free-throw shooting, especially thanks to the fouls drawn by ball-handlers Lyons and Johnson, who can get into the lane at will. Once they get there, they capitalize at a team-wide 75 percent rate. That, combined with strong offensive rebounding, leads to the conference’s most efficient offense, despite average two-point and three-point shooting and pedestrian turnover numbers. Where the Wildcats stand out most is on the defensive end. They force turnovers on nearly one in five opponent possessions, allow 40 percent shooting and clear the boards better than anyone in the Pac-12. Johnson’s quick hands lead to more than two steals per game, and Hill averages just more than a steal per game.

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Gonzaga’s WCC Dominance Hints at Elusive Postseason Success

Posted by Kenny Ocker on January 18th, 2013

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Portland and Gonzaga in the City of Roses.

When star forward Elias Harris can go 1-of-9 in the first half, scoring only two points, and you still lead by 10 points, you’ve got it made. That’s because Gonzaga goes 10-deep as well as any team in the country. In the West Coast Conference, that’s borderline unfair. Riding a streak of 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a stretch of 32 of 33 wins against Portland, the Bulldogs are again showing themselves as the class of the league, and look to be the best they’ve been since Adam Morrison called the Kennel home.

Kelly Olynyk is Making Waves For More Reasons Than His Haircut This Season

Kelly Olynyk is Making Waves For More Reasons Than His Haircut This Season

Playing the victim yet again, the Pilots tried to make it a game despite falling behind by 14 before making their second basket, getting as close as five points in the last two minutes. Freshman guard Oskars Reinfelds carried Portland back into contention, rallying his teammates with a stretch of six straight points to start a 24-15 run and adding a three-pointer later in the hot streak. But then Harris does what star players do, even when they are having off games, grabbing a loose ball from a block and ferociously slamming home an exclamation-point dunk to kill Portland’s rally. Then Memphis native Drew Barham capped the half with a three-pointer to stretch the lead to double digits again just before the clock expired.

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The Civil War: For Oregon and Oregon State, One Game Says It All

Posted by Kenny Ocker on January 7th, 2013

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker on Twitter) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Sunday night’s Civil War game between Oregon State and Oregon in Corvallis.

After December drags on with a dearth of meaningful games, the first weekend of conference play is a welcome sight for basketball fans. Everybody wants to see how their teams match up against the schools that matter, and are looking for meaningful results to hang their hopes on for the rest of the season. But as tempting as it is to judge how good your favorite squad really is, it’s still too soon to see what each team’s future looks like just yet. That urge to decide what’s in store is magnified when that first game is the 338th edition of the most-played game in college basketball: the Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State.

Oregon forward E.J. Singler seems to be back on track after a slow start to 2012-13. The senior had 15 points and nine rebounds, the second-highest total in each stat this season. (Photo by Rockne Andrew Roll.)

Oregon forward E.J. Singler seems to be back on track after a slow start to 2012-13. The senior had 15 points and nine rebounds, the second-highest total in each stat this season. (Photo by Rockne Andrew Roll.)

One game into the Pac-12 schedule, it looks like Oregon is an NCAA Tournament-level squad after taking a 79-66 road win against rival Oregon State in Corvallis. The Ducks have a realistic shot at making the school’s first Sweet Sixteen since an Elite Eight run in 2006-07 led by Aaron Brooks and a host of other shooters. But Dana Altman’s Ducks are a different sort of team than Kent’s free-wheeling, fast-break-loving squad of yore. The 2012-13 version thrives on its defense, led by shot-altering Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods and quick-handed Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi. Even if the Ducks play at an above-average tempo, they aren’t hanging up the consistent 80-point scores from those days. Instead, they’ve got a stifling defense currently in the top 10 in defensive points per possession, and have enough offense to get by even with senior leader E.J. Singler struggling to regain the form that helped guide the Ducks to the NIT last season. (I’m thinking he shouldn’t have cut his Samson-like locks after last season. His scoring and rebounding are both down this year, as is his once-stellar free-throw percentage, which finally crested 80 percent again Sunday night.)

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Who Won the Week: Duke, UC Irvine and Texas (sorta) …

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 21st, 2012

wonweek

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

WINNER: Duke

Mason Plumlee has led Duke in rebounding 10 times in 11 games as the Blue Devils are 11-0 while ranked third in strength of schedule. (AP Photo)

Mason Plumlee has led Duke in rebounding 10 times in 11 games as the Blue Devils are 11-0 while ranked third in strength of schedule. (AP Photo)

The week couldn’t have gone much more perfectly for the Blue Devils than it did. Achieve top ranking? Check. Land a top recruit? Check. Win both games handily? Check and check. Yes, Duke should probably send some flowers to Butler for knocking off preseason favorite Indiana, but who would have looked at the two teams before Saturday and thought the Hoosiers were better? Outside of the state of Indiana, I’m guessing few would. The Blue Devils (11-0) have the nation’s best body of work, and have dominated it in such a fashion that they look to be the nation’s top team convincingly, and this is before prized prospect Jabari Parker picked Mike Krzyzewski’s squad over Michigan State and BYU. On the court, Mason Plumlee, who has led Duke in rebounding 10 times so far, carried his team to an 88-47 win over Cornell with 18 points and nine rebounds Wednesday and followed that up the next night with 21 points and 15 boards in a 76-54 win over Elon. And as an added bonus, the youngest Plumlee, freshman Marshall, already made a brief return to the court against Cornell coming back from a foot injury.

(Related winners: Mason Plumlee, Butler. Related losers: Indiana, Michigan State, BYU, Cornell, Elon, and especially North Carolina – more to come.)

LOSER: Eastern Kentucky

The Ohio Valley’s Colonels started their season off hot, winning nine straight games before a weekend matchup at also-undefeated Illinois. The major-conference team expectedly pulled Eastern Kentucky apart, winning 66-53, but it was what happened next that wrapped up a bad week in Richmond, Ky. On a rare road trip to a MEAC school, the Colonels were tripped up by North Carolina A&T, who pounded the ball inside while shooting 55 percent from the field and stifling Eastern Kentucky’s guard-oriented offense by holding it to 40 percent shooting. The Bulldogs also nearly doubled up the Colonels on the glass, sealing the game. So much for a hot start.

(Related winners: North Carolina A&T, the 457 Bulldogs fans who watched the game in person. Related losers: Murray State and the Ohio Valley Conference, which both need every break they can get come March.)

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Who Won the Week? Illinois, DePaul and Fans Everywhere…

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 14th, 2012

wonweek

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

WINNER: The Fans

Oregon Pit Crew student fans support Arsalan Kazemi on the night of his debut as a Duck. (Photo by Rockne Andrew Roll)

Fans, this horrible week is over. You’ve been freed, just like Arsalan Kazemi. (Also, can we please ignore the fact that a UO student misspelled “anchor”? I got my degree from there, and so did this photographer, and neither of us seemed to have any issues with that word.) (Photo by Rockne Andrew Roll)

Let’s face it – this finals week was about the worst thing on record. Save for an upset win over Wichita State by Tennessee, which magically scored more than 40 points to shockingly hand the Shockers their first loss, the week was bereft of interesting match-ups. But the good news is, it’s over. (I’ve got a little bit of bad news though: Winter break’s not much better in terms of captivating contests.) Let’s celebrate that and move on with our lives.

(Related winners: None. Related losers: Anyone who had to sit through games last week.)

LOSER: Halil Kanacevic

The 6’8” forward for St. Joseph’s thought it would be a good idea to show support for his Hawks by flipping the double bird to Villanova fans during a Big 5 game after making his only field goal of the night, a three-pointer to give St. Joe’s a 50-47 lead in the second half. Instead, Kanacevic got popped with a technical foul for the display of unsportsmanlike conduct. Late in the game, he then proceeded to miss two clutch free throws with a minute to go that would have stretched the Hawks’ one-point lead. Instead, the Wildcats came back for a 65-61 home win that helped right their ship an embarrassing 18-point defeat to Columbia and Big 5 losses to La Salle and Temple. For his trouble, Kanacevic got suspended for two games as well.

(Related winners: Villanova; Temple, the likely Big 5 favorite. Related losers: St. Joseph’s; Langston Gallaway, the Hawks guard whose six three-pointers and 22 points were lost in the shuffle.)

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Who Won the Week? Not the ACC…

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 16th, 2012

wonweek

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

WINNER: Kevin Ollie

Kevin Ollie Has Gotten Off to a Nice Start at UConn (credit: CT Post)

The debutante coach of the UConn Huskies still has a huge task in front of himself this season in trying to motivate a team ineligible for the postseason because of terrible academic performance. But he couldn’t have started his tenure off better. Beating a talented Michigan State team on Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany was one of the first night’s biggest surprises, and then coming back home to blow out Vermont in what could have been a letdown game was an accomplishment in itself. Ollie and the Huskies should cruise through the next two weeks before a December 4 match-up with North Carolina State in the Jimmy V Classic.

(Related winners: The UConn program, Jim Calhoun. Related losers: Michigan State.)

LOSER: The ACC

The Atlantic Coast Conference could have a big problem — depth. The league’s lower half has taken four losses from mid-major schools in the first week (two more than any other BCS conference): Virginia falling to George Mason and Delaware, Florida State losing to South Alabama, and Miami losing by 12 to Florida Gulf Coast. The separation between Duke/North Carolina/N.C. State and the rest of the conference could be vast this year, and that may hurt a lot of middle-of-the-road ACC teams come Selection Sunday.

(Related winners: The Colonial Athletic Association as a whole, South Alabama, bubble teams from other conferences. Related losers: The teams that lost to mid-majors, the other teams in the middle of the ACC.)

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Oregon State Wins 2K Sports Classic Regional, But NYC Was Booked Regardless

Posted by Kenny Ocker on November 11th, 2012

Kenny Ocker is an RTC correspondent. He can be reached on Twitter @kennyocker.

Ahmad Starks had an incredible game. By halftime, he had 19 points, five assists and three steals. His first three-pointer changed the face of the game, taking an Oregon State team that was trailing New Mexico State by six with 10 minutes to go in the first half and righting their course, setting them on a trajectory to win the 2K Sports Classic preliminary game and set the Beavers on a course to Manhattan for the tournament’s finals.

Starks’ Career Night Catapulted the Beavers to NYC (Amanda Cowan | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

…which they would have gone to anyway, given the weird nature of the preliminary rounds of the tournament. In what essentially is a way to scam the NCAA’s scheduling rules to get more games into teams’ schedules, the tournament brackets teams in different regionals, but pre-selects which teams are going to the final bracket and which teams are shipped off elsewhere to continue playing the “tournament” while not playing for hardware. Because exempt tournaments count as one game in a team’s schedule limit of 30, it lets schools play more games. But because it’s not a true knockout tournament, lower-seeded teams, such as the Aggies or Niagara – Oregon State’s victim Friday night – are denied an opportunity to be rewarded if they pull off a big win. At least New Mexico State gets a trip to New York out of the tournament. No, not to New York City. The Purple Eagles of Niagara will host the Aggies and Bucknell Bison (which beat 2K Sports Classic “finalist” Purdue) on back-to-back days next weekend.

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