Oregon's Issues (Plus A Few Bonus Ramblings)

-Jim Root

After a year in which watching Oregon play basketball nearly drove us into an asylum, we at 3MW took off our straightjackets and readied ourselves for what figured to be a much more aesthetically pleasing year of hoops. The days of lackadaisical defense and “my turn, your turn” offense were a thing of the past, we thought, with the return of an experienced floor leader in Payton Pritchard, the addition of several skilled two-way players, and the presence of a smart coach in Dana Altman. The Ducks started the year strongly by bushwhacking Portland St. and Eastern Washington, two decent mid-majors, and all seemed well Deep in the Woods.

But then the Ducks traveled across the country to the Big Apple and were introduced to Fran McCaffery’s various zones, particularly an extended 2-3, and the offense screeched to a halt. The team’s off-ball movement and passing simply weren’t good enough to create consistently valuable shots, resulting in a dismal offensive showing: 23/64 from the field (36%), including 6/19 from deep (32%), 0.97 points per possession. Even that number is artificially high, as it was inflated by 12 points on six possessions in the final two minutes, when the game had already been decided. Take away that garbage time, and it gets even uglier: 57 points on 65 possessions, 0.88ppp.

The Ducks left some points on the floor with a few small, correctable tidbits. One that I noticed consistently was that their perimeter players too often set up way outside the NBA three-point line, needlessly putting them out of normal shooting range and making shots far more difficult. Look at where Payton Pritchard is set up late in the first half, even though the Iowa defender is all the way back at the free throw line:

After a couple passes, Pritchard ended up firing from his way-too-deep position, and I’ll snail mail you a penny if you can guess the result:

If you said “miss short,” you win! DM me your address and 41 cents for a stamp.

Now, there is some benefit to that positioning: it forces the defense to extend more than it may be comfortable, leaving more space behind the first line for someone to settle in and pick the zone apart. And when teams can knock shots down from NBA range (Villanova last year immediately comes to mind), they become that much harder to defend. But Pritchard is thinking shot as soon as Will Richardson looks to pass it to him, and he would do well to take another step in. Even if he’s not toeing the college line, at least he’s not unnecessarily chucking from Steph Curry/Trae Young range.

And while the short corner is a valuable location against a 2-3, that’s more for passing purposes, not a great spot for launching 15-foot airballs with plenty of time on the shot clock:

Of course, Oregon bounced back nicely against another 2-3 zone (THE 2-3 zone!) the next day, racking up 1.14ppp against Syracuse, buoyed by 11 offensive rebounds (grabbed 41% of their misses) and Bol Bol’s interior dominance.  It seemed the Iowa effort was an aberration, a lackluster effort against a better-than-advertised Hawkeyes team that wrecked UConn as well. Once again, everything was back on track in Eugene.

Until it wasn’t.

Texas Southern, the reigning SWAC alpha who had already won at one highlighter jersey school (Baylor), came to town on Monday and stole a win. The Tigers burned down the woods in the second half as Oregon grew complacent on defense, including a galling stretch after the Ducks stretched the lead to double digits. Down 51-41, TSU scored on 11 of its next 12 possessions, a 27-13 run over 5+ minutes to take a 68-64 lead, and the Tigers never trailed again. Some of the defensive lowlights from that decisive stretch include Pritchard taking a snooze as his man gets a wide open three after one pass:

An easy alley-oop after only one pass thanks to a late/non-existent weakside rotation from Paul White:

More mystifyingly absent help defense on a simple post-up:

And yet another dunk when no one tags the roll man on a run-of-the-mill pick-and-roll to start a possession:

A fun note: the only non-scoring possession of these 12 was an Oregon steal that resulted in Victor Bailey getting VICIOUSLY rim-stuffed on a dunk attempt. The joys of film-watching!

If you somehow couldn’t tell from those clips, Auburn transfer big man Trayvon Reed had a banner day, going 9/9 from the field against what should be an incredibly stout frontline. He got dunk after dunk against an Oregon defense that seemed disinterested at best, outright lazy at worst. The lack of focus was glaring despite Altman calling a timeout during the run, and that blistering stretch ended up costing the Ducks the type of loss that will stick out in March like the excessively drunk person at your upcoming office Christmas party. Sure, the Tigers hit a couple tough jumpers mixed in there, but there were also too many easy buckets and lapses that a true contender would not have.

All is not lost, obviously. These are fixable issues - a greater degree of mental engagement, fundamental rotations, and refusing to let one mistake turn into five can all be corrected rather quickly. Oregon remains ridiculously talented, Bol Bol has been brilliant offensively, and they’re still due to get Louis King, another freshman phenom, back soon after missing the beginning of the year with an injury. Calling the Pac-12 wide open is like saying the Pacific Ocean is kinda big, and the Ducks still have every right to believe they can win the league (and they may even still be the favorite?). But they have some things to clean up, mostly related to the subtle aspects of the game and giving constant effort, tiny adjustments that will have massive ramifications as the team hopes to reach its tantalizingly high potential.

Pritchard summed it up best after the Texas Southern loss, via this article by James Crepea of the Oregonian:

"Obviously, we just need to figure some things outs," Pritchard said. "Last year, around this time we lost two quick ones and we didn't make the changes. So it's going to start in practice, but people are going to make changes. ... We take days off mentally. We just don't bring it and that needs to change and it shows in games because some plays we bring it, some plays we don't. That's not the way.

"That's not the way the Final Four team did it. Last year's team, that's how we didn't have intensity and this year's team, that needs to change."

Suffice it to say, he’s not the only one disgusted at the possibility of a repeat of last year’s Oregon season.

Bonus! A couple quick Root’s Ramblings…

1.     Blue/Turquoise Native American Heritage Uniforms

I’m a big fan of these. Gonzaga wore them for their season opener against Idaho State, confusing the Weave greatly when we tuned into that one, and Florida State looked sharp in its alternates on Wednesday while night taking down Purdue. Alternates aren’t terribly common in college hoops, but these are excellent, and have a nice intention behind them.

2.     I love whatever the heck this Belfast Classic is

It’s not the 24-hour tip-off marathon, but it’s given us daytime basketball at a time when we desperately need a little of it (you can’t go cold turkey after Feast Week, you just can’t. Unless it’s Thanksgiving leftovers on a sandwich). Plus, a Buffalo-San Francisco matchup would be a sneaky massive mid-major game, both of whom have been highly impressive to this point in the year.

3.     Abu Kigab should play more for the Ducks

I watched too much Oregon film to not have one more thought there. Kigab is a rarity on this Oregon team, a willing passer who rarely looks for his own shot and chases down hustle rebounds. He’s currently 9/10 from 2-point range with 15 assists to only 7 turnovers, although his three-point shooting (6/30 in two seasons combined) is “please stop taking them”-level bad.

4.     Michigan’s Defense

It’s been talked about ad nauseum, but holy hell are they good, anchored by Jon Teske (currently leading the country in individual defensive rating) and spearheaded on the perimeter by ballhawks Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson. One quick stat: last year, the Wolverines’ in-state rival Michigan St. led the country in 2FG% defense, allowing only 38.4% inside the arc with Jaren Jackson Jr. swatting anything and everything. This year’s Michigan team is allowing a miniscule 36.1% conversion rate inside the arc, besting last year’s #1 by nearly 2.5%. Luke Yaklich, your head coaching job is waiting whenever (and very nearly wherever) you want it.  

5.     SoCon conference play kicks off this weekend

Most of the attention will (rightfully) be on the Big Ten and its early season conference games, but ten of the SoCon’s 11 teams will play their first league game, as well. The headliner of that group is East Tennessee State heading to Wofford, as Steve Forbes’s brand new batch of athletes (344th nationally in minutes continuity) takes on Fletcher Magee and the Terriers. Villanova-slayer Furman, on the other hand, hosts Western Carolina, who nearly handed Wake Forest its second straight dismal home loss. The one team that isn’t playing a conference game? UNC Greensboro, the preseason favorite, who will instead get the chance to earn the league a GINORMOUS win against Kentucky at Rupp Arena. If the Spartans steal that one, the two-bid SoCon cries will intensify to a fever pitch…