Arizona might have been the preseason favorite in the Pac-12. UCLA might have been the team that caught fire and looked ready to be the best. But it’s Oregon that sits atop the conference as we head into Saturday’s games. The Ducks are 17-2 overall, 6-0 in the league and have already beaten both the Wildcats and Bruins. Is this for real? We’ll take a closer look at the personnel, strengths and schedule of Oregon basketball.
The Ducks have three new players in the rotation and two of them form an exciting freshman backcourt. Danyean Dotson and Dominic Artis are each averaging in double figures. Dotson is an excellent 47 percent shooter from the floor, while Artis also handles playmaking duties. The kids get help from forwards E.J. Singler and Carlos Emery. The senior forwards each provide solid shooting on the perimeter and they too, are double-digit scorers on a per-game basis.
It’s a senior transfer though, who might be the biggest reason Oregon has climbed to the top of the conference standings. Arsalan Kazemi played the first three years of his college career at Rice. The folks in Eugene have to be thrilled he came north, because Kazemi has given this team the interior toughness it lacked last year. He averages ten rebounds a game, and he enables 6’11” senior Tony Woods to focus more on scoring, where Woods is the fifth double-digit scorer. Kazemi’s points might only be at nine per game, but his ability to hit the boards has given Oregon a new dimension.
The weakness Oregon has is that they aren’t particularly good shooting the three-ball. No one is at 40 percent, or even within a couple points. There are also fair questions that can be raised over Oregon’s ability to tighten up defensively.
But no one can say that 6-0 Pac-12 record has come as the result of a friendly schedule stretch. We mentioned the wins over Arizona and UCLA, the latter being on the road. Oregon’s also beaten Arizona State, a team that looks ready to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. Last weekend’s 76-67 win over UCLA showed the toughness that Kazemi brings to the table. He had 11 rebounds, helping Oregon win the battle of the boards 37-28. When you consider the Bruins have good inside talent in David & Travis Wear, are notoriously tough under Ben Howland and were playing at home, the Ducks’ boardwork was impressive indeed. In the Arizona State game, Kazemi joined Woods and Singler in getting to the free throw line, the area where the difference was made in a 68-65 win.
And while the three-point shooting might not be good for the season as a whole, there’s no arguing with how Oregon has shot from behind the arc in the three signature Pac-12 wins. As a team they hit 19-of-35 in the three games combined, with Artis connecting on 7-of-10. I think this does raise some concerns about sustainability—no player shoots 70 percent from three-point range, and no team shoots 54 percent.
You can fairly point out that less than 12 three-pointers per game is not high volume, and that good percentages can therefore follow. I can buy that, but the three-point shooting in these games has not just been good, it’s been surreal. With even just above-average shooting from trey range, Oregon probably loses two of these games.
There’s also the question of defense—Arizona State and UCLA were each over 47 percent in their shooting from the floor and Arizona was not shut down. It’s tough to ask a team to keep winning games if the formula is using red-hot three-point shooting to overcome so-so defense.
Now that’s the devil’s advocate side. The positive is simply that Oregon has all the necessary pieces in place, from backcourt play to a frontcourt that has some depth and whose component parts run the gamut from perimeter scorers to tough rebounders. Furthermore, the freshman guards are going to keep improving and it’s reasonable to assume that a part of that will be better team defense. And even when the three-point shooting comes back to earth, and even if Oregon loses a couple games you don’t expect because some team gets hot behind the arc, the fast 6-0 start has given them a cushion.
Oregon will play at home against Washington State on Saturday, then hit the road for northern California next week with games against Stanford and Cal. Is a 9-0 start to conference play in the cards?
COLORADO CRAWLS BACK
The rise of Oregon to championship contention means the decline of someone else. At least so far, that team is Colorado. The Buffaloes, who won the conference tournament a year ago and have one of the league’s best all-around players in forward Andre Roberson, lost four of their first five games in Pac-12 play. There was some bad luck involved—an overtime loss at Arizona was marked by controversy, and there were competitive losses to Arizona State and UCLA. Another loss to Washington followed.
Over the past week, the Buffs have beaten Washington State and Stanford and gotten up to 3-4 in the league, but this is a team that needs an extended winning streak. Colorado will host Cal in a key home game on Sunday afternoon, then get a week before a trip to Utah next Saturday. If the Buffs can win both, they’ll be back in the NCAA Tournament discussion for a February 7 date at Oregon, with these two passing ships can collide.