I am trying very hard not to get excited about Thursday night's game Oregon Ducks. Just have a dreadful feeling that just when I will get my hopes up, we will fall flat on our faces with another listless performance(s) on the road. Does our two game winning streak during which the team for the first time this year played the entire 40 minutes with effort and defensive intensity, give us real hope for continued improvement and consistent performances through rest of the season? I am not sure but I think how we play against couple of desperate teams from Oregon will give us some answers.
We start with the Ducks on Thursday night. They are not in good shape. They just got demolished in their Bay Area trip where they were eviscerated by Cal (57-89 embarrassment) and Stanford (a 69-84 humiliation). Here are how desperate the situation is with Ernie Kent's program (10-9, 2-5):
"We've got to find ourselves again," reserve forward Jeremy Jacob said. "We still have it in us, we've just got to find it."
It's going to be an exhaustive search. The Ducks (10-9, 2-5) have lost five in a row after beating Washington State and Washington on the road to open the Pac-10 schedule.
And they have rarely been competitive. When they took a 2-0 lead at Cal -- and held it for 25 seconds -- it was the only time since the Jan. 2 win at Washington that they have been ahead of an opponent.
The Ducks' margin of defeat over the past five games: 17.4 points.
"We've got to find a way to win," sophomore center Michael Dunigan said. "Our team spirit seems to be dropping. We're like stuck in the mud right now."
They will try to find themselves in what I think will be an emotional Mac Court hosting UCLA team for the last time in that arena's history. Bruins even during the best of years had tough times at that venue. I still remember Ed O and Tyus Edney getting frustrated with their only Pac-10 road loss in 1995 and just three years ago AA/DC/LRMAM/RW and co. had a letdown loss resulting in the Duckies rushing the court.
Ernie Kent's team might be struggling but they still have a very athletic team which goes about 9-10 deep. Bruins have always had tough time against those guys (in Eugene) because over the years Kent had the Ducks spread the floor against Howland's team and beat us off the dribble. We are hoping this year will be a little difference because of Ben Howland's new found appreciation for the zone D.
Coach Howland had this to say about his zone D after Washington State game:
"Zone can be very effective. Jim Boeheim for example, recruits to the zone. They want long, athletic guys. His field goal percentage defense over 30 years is probably 40 or under. They scheme to shooters. I love that zone defense. That's pressure, creating havoc with length and athletic guys. If I had my druthers, that's what I'd want to play. We want to keep it compact and bottom line, make you beat us at the perimeter."
I think those comments are very interesting because I think the athletes Howland has on his roster could potentially allow him to play a zone defense, which might negate the disadvantage in rebounding position. With Tyler Honeycutt's LRMAM like wingspan and length, Howland has a potential weapon who can do quick do quick doubles as needed but also help with recovering quickly enough to get rebounds. It also help Howland that he as two tall guards - Malcolm Lee and Michael Roll - up front. I can see why he started James Keefe because Keefe combines with Reeves Nelson to provide a more steady presence down low, and can be a little more physical presence (defensively speaking) than Ragovic.
It is going to be tough for our guys to hold their own in rebounding against the Ducks. Oregon is a pretty solid rebounding team. They are ranked number 2 in the conference in offensive rebounds (13.79/game) and 24th nationally according to KenPom in offensive rebound % (38.9). Ducks center, 6-10 255 sophomore Michael Dunigan is a load who could create problems for us in the middle. It is going to be challenge for us to keep him and other athletic Ducks off the board. Dunigan will probably going to be extra fired up after the way he struggled against the Bay Area teams. He scored just 2 points with no rebounds against Stanford, and also had a very lackluster game against Cal (9 points and 10 boards, but shooting 3 for 8 with 4 TOs).
Speaking of struggling, I am assuming Howland is a little worried about Tajuan Porter. He is due. He scored 16 points at Stanford but shot 5-for-13, and is 17-for-60 (an ugly28.3 percent) over the past five games. From Mike Tokito in the Oregonian:
Porter is hardly the only undersized guard in the Pac-10. Cal's Jerome Randle and Arizona's Nic Wise are 5-10, and Washington's Isaiah Thomas is 5-8. Maybe it's the extra few inches, but all three are much better penetrators and finishers than Porter.
Plus all three have had better players around them and haven't had to assume the mantle of primary scorer, as Porter has. He continues to shoot, but his field goal percentage has dropped to 37.5 percent, including 35.6 percent from three-point range.
Kent has tried benching Porter, taking him out of the starting lineup against Arizona. That didn't work. Last week, he spoke of Porter needing to "get back to letting the game come to him." Porter still was mostly ineffective against Stanford and California. (John Hunt's take on those games.)
Kent is in an awkward spot. He has 11 underclassmen who need to develop and could use some of Porter's playing time and shots to build for next season.
But Kent also needs to win games to keep his job, and it appears he believes having Porter in the lineup, shooting threes, is the best way to do it.
In all likelihood, Porter will break the Pac-10 record for most three-pointers made in a career. It's an impressive feat, but one that is emblematic of his career. The current record holder is Salim Stoudamire, the former Lake Oswego High School standout who made 342 three-pointers for Arizona from 2002-05. Porter has 317.
We can only hope that Lee and Roll ensure that Porter doesn't find back his shooting touch on Thursday night. Some more numbers on the Ducks during their five game losing streak from the Oregonian:
87 - points by which the Ducks have been outscored in the five games since their 90-79 win at Washington.
17.7 - Oregon's three-point shooting percentage (14 of 79) since Seattle before Tajuan Porter hit three meaningless treys in a row in the final 1:19 at Stanford.
10 - fouls Oregon committed in the final 4:19. Although his team was down 15 points, coach Ernie Kent obviously wanted to send a message to his team and probably himself: It isn't over till it's over.
63 - The combined scoring averages for Porter, Michael Dunigan and Malcolm Armstead in the wins at Washington State and Washington. Since then, they've totaled 37, 19, 35, 24 and 30. As Kent pointed out, the offense runs pretty well when all three are performing, and that hasn't happened lately.
19 - Total points Porter has scored in the first halves during the five-game losing streak. He scored 14 points in the final 4:08 of Saturday night's lopsided loss.
Again reading those numbers feel like the Bruins are just being set up for a Ducks' offensive explosion on Thursday night. I know many are feeling good about the team after Saturday. However, as noted above I don't think we can make any conclusions given what we have seen through the last 19 games.
We will not know whether our team has taken a definitive step forward until we see how they handle the Ducks - DEFENSIVELY - on Thursday night. If we can come out and play with effort and defensive intensity, while being patient and smart on offense on the road, we should have a good shot. Guess we will have to see.
I am still not sure whether we will end up with a winning season this year. My expectations have taken such a nose dive at this point I will be ok (not excited) with a winning record and an NIT appearance which will give our guys to get more experience heading into next season. Obviously, there are many of us who think we might have a shot to win the conference or the tournament at Staples if the team improves through rest of the season. For now though, I think we have table all those thoughts and hope for a 40 minutes of hard-nosed (zone) defensive effort on Thursday night.