Key Returners: Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten, Victor Bailey, Paul White
Key Losses: Troy Brown, Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh
Key Newcomers: Bol Bol, Louis King, Ehab Amin (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), Will Richardson, Francis Okoro, Miles Norris
Outlook: After nearly clawing my eyes out watching Elijah Brown and MiKyle McIntosh lob cannonballs at the rim with 20 on the shot clock last year, I have renewed intrigue in this year’s Duck squad. Despite a strong track record, Dana Altman struggled to get last year’s talented mix of youngsters and grad transfers to coalesce. What should have been a picturesque blend of scoring/defense/youth/experience instead resembled a mashed together puzzle - sure, you could generally tell what it was supposed to be, but it still ended up looking like a confused jumble of pieces that didn't truly fit together.
That said, I continue to have faith in Altman's coaching ability, and he’ll have a mulligan at getting returners and newcomers to blend into a cohesive team. The 2018-19 version will be athletic and long with an experienced floor general at the helm in Payton Pritchard, so if the incoming freshmen are as good as advertised, the Ducks could be hunting another run to the Final Four.
The most standout part of this Oregon team should be its defense, led by perhaps the best pair of shot-blockers in the country: human pogo stick Kenny Wooten and spindly freshman Bol Bol. With a strikingly similar frontcourt to the elite defensive combo of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher (3rd in the nation in block rate in 2016, 1st in 2017), the Ducks’ perimeter players should feel comfortable extending on the perimeter and attacking opposing ball-handlers, knowing that foes will find themselves “Deep in the Woods” should they get all the way to the basket. Fellow freshmen Miles Norris and Francis Okoro (reclassed from 2019) give Altman even more athletic size with which to work.
After barely finishing inside KenPom's top 100, the defense could certainly use the help. Among rotation players, the worst on a per possession basis (per Hoop Lens) were freshman wings Victor Bailey and Abu Kigab; the nuances of high-level defense often take time to pick up, so Altman will have to hope both players progress on that end. Kigab has all of the requisite athletic tools to be a switchable menace, but the mental part matters, too - and he needs to avoid fouling. The addition of defensive whiz Ehab Amin from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi should be a major boost on the perimeter; he tends to gamble, but his quickness, size in the backcourt, and anticipatory skills more than make up for that (second in the country in steal rate as junior).
Altman plays quite a bit of zone, mixing things up to give opponents different looks. With Wooten and Bol ready to take away the rim and a plethora of young perimeter players, this seems like a viable option, provided the guards commit to challenging shots and entry passes.
If the perimeter defense doesn't make as big of strides as hoped, the Ducks can simply try to outscore opponents - and they certainly have the weapons to do so. Pritchard is a skilled table-setter who can also get his own offense, while incoming wings Louis King and Will Richardson are both renowned for their bucket-getting prowess. Altman can also stretch the floor with 5-shooter lineups featuring Bol at center and Paul White at the four. Ideally, that frontcourt pairing will work better than the White + Wooten combo of last year, during which the Ducks became a cellar dweller:
I'm not just cherry-picking that combo, either - statistically, that was the team's least effective duo that played more than 100 possessions together, a damning sign (and a large incentive to avoid it this year). As is the case with many deep and talented teams, pulling the right lineup strings will be crucial - I'd certainly hope to see some lineups with one of Bol/Wooten/Okoro + King at the 4 surrounded by three guards. Kigab can also likely play some smallball 4, if needed.
Lastly, allow me a quick tangent on Bol Bol. His combination of coordination, size, and skill level is incredibly rare, and his potential is indeed tantalizing (hence the top 5 recruiting ranking). I'm not entirely sold he's going to be a force as a freshman, though. He's extremely thin (his body is almost all arms and legs, no torso), meaning he could struggle with nearly any degree of physicality, and he just moves in a way that makes me nervous - I can't quite put it into words, though. He's talented, no doubt, but I could see a downside scenario of a Skal Labissiere-type impact in college, who was also a consensus top 5 recruit, but failed to make an impression at Kentucky surrounded by so many other more physically-ready players.
Bottom Line: Oregon appears to have the right combination of experience, youth, scoring, athleticism, defense, and coaching to be the Pac 12's best team this year. That's faint praise considering the quality of that league, but the upside is there to be an Elite Eight-caliber team. Of course, I thought that last year, yet those talented pieces did whatever the opposite of "gelling" is, leading to a nightmarish brand of basketball. Hopefully, this year's squad meshes into a more collective unit, masking each others' weaknesses and amplifying strengths; if so, the Ducks could be flying high come March.