Sliding is fun when you’re a child, but for a top Division I basketball team, slides are an anathema. The Oregon Ducks are on one crazy skating trip right now, losing their last three games after opening the season 13-0. With this losing streak, the Ducks have effectively clipped their own wings when it comes to winning the Pac-12’s regular season and shot down my claim that they’ll win the Pac-12 Conference.
None of Oregon’s losses are to teams outside the top 53 in ESPN’s RPI (Rating Percentage Index, a formula based 25% on a team’s wins, 25% on opponents’ wins, and 50% on the opponents’ strength of schedule). Granted, the RPI is not particularly useful until midway through conference season after more data has been accumulated, but it is indicative of a team’s relative standing.
They do not have any particularly “bad” losses, but the Stanford defeat is worse than it appears—Stanford this year just is not a good team, regardless of their RPI (see previous comment). California is quite a bit better than anyone anticipated this year and will probably finish in the top 3 in the conference if their recent play is a true indicator of their potential, and Colorado—prior to losing their best player in Spencer Dinwiddie for the season—is a quality top 25 team. Oregon has nothing to be ashamed about in who their losses are too, but it is the manner in which they have lost that is troubling.
Oregon’s problem is they cannot defend; they have given up an average of 93 points per game in their three losses on better than 52% shooting in each defeat. This cannot continue if the Ducks want to stay afloat, let alone make the NCAA Tournament. The Ducks need their defense to improve, or they risk bottoming out in the Pac-12 after flying so high to begin the year.
During the early part of the season it was obvious that Oregon’s defense was not up to the recent standards set by head coach Dana Altman. In previous years, the Ducks were known for defense and rebounding, but this year that is not the case and was readily apparent within a few games.
Perimeter ball pressure is weak to non-existent. Dominic Artis is not yet full reintegrated after being suspended the first nine games of the season. Joseph Young is a scorer, as is Jason Calliste. None of Oregon’s perimeter players are stoppers. Porous perimeter defense allows opposing guards to drive or pass into the post at will.
This would not be as large of a problem if the frontcourt lacked any semblance of a defender. Mike Moser rebounds well, but he is hardly an interior players and drifts to the perimeter to shoot threes. Waverly Austin is a marginal post player and is not that great of a shot blocker. Richard Amardi and Ben Carter are similar, if only shorter. Lacking an interior rim-protector, the Ducks consequently give up easy points or risk committing fouls.
The frontcourt is a massive weakness that has been incisively exploited in conference play. There is no shot blocker to respect and other teams are able to drive without having to even think about pulling up for a jump shot. Unsurprisingly in their three losses, Oregon’s opponents have shot above their season averages and attempted more free throws than they had against anyone else.
Fortunately, the Ducks have a week to work on defense and prepare for their next opponent, Oregon State. Unfortunately, five of the next seven are on the road. While only Arizona is the really only great team they will play during that stretch (next best is an up-and-down UCLA squad), Oregon has shown an inability to win at home in-conference. Despite one of the ugliest courts in college athletics, Oregon still has a home-court advantage, yet has failed to capitalize upon it in the first few games in conference play. No matter the quality of the teams faced on the road (and most are poorly rated according to the RPI), failure to win at home usually dooms a team to a poor conference finish.
There is one thing to be slightly encouraged about. Early season concerns about rebounding seem to have been addressed for the most part; we know who this Oregon team is on the glass. Against Colorado, Oregon grabbed 19 offensive rebounds but still was out-rebounded by 6. The latter part is disappointing but who they are, but the former is very encouraging as their misses no longer mean the end of a possession. The Ducks will never be a power rebounding team this season, but they can still deal with their defensive woes and live up to their potential.
Ultimately, the Pac-12 is an awful mess of mediocrity so far, and that should provide Oregon with an opportunity to make noise in the regular season. They no longer have a chance to outright win it, but three losses does not eliminate them from being a contender. Defense will have to improve—it must improve if they even want to finish in the top half of the conference. Oregon has so much potential, but they do not seem to have fully bought into Altman’s defensive scheme. Or perhaps the athletes simply lack the ability to play good defense. If that is the case, Oregon may actually have a long season in store despite their fantastic start. Let’s hope they can have a fantastic finish.