2011-12 Pac-12 Basketball
Report: UO & OSU
Surprise season gives Ducks reason for optimism
No one is picking the Ducks to finish last in the Pac-12 Conference this season.
A year after far exceeding low expectations in coach Dana Altman's debut season, Oregon figures to challenge for a spot in the middle of the expanded league's standings. Or perhaps higher.
"Once you get your foot in the door, anything can happen," said senior transfer Olu Ashaolu, expressing the team's goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Altman has quickly gotten things rolling in Eugene, Ore., where he christened the new Matthew Knight Arena with a seventh-place finish in the Pac-10 and an unexpected run to the College Basketball Invitational postseason title. This team will be better still.
Oregon will build on that 21-victory season with five returnees, all of whom have starting experience, and eight newcomers. It's unclear how soon the rookies will adapt to Altman's insistence on playing defense, but the recruiting class was one of the best in the conference and will have a significant impact, probably sooner than later.
The result is more talent, more depth and more athleticism. Joining top returnee E.J. Singler are transfers Tony Woods and Ashaolu, who figure to start from Day 1. Shooting guard Jabari Brown, a top-25 talent coveted by most schools across the country, leads a very nice freshman class.
"I am concerned about our skill level, and when you're trying to blend in eight new scholarship players, you're going to go through some growing pains," Altman said. "We do have some tough games, and we're going to go through some ups and downs with this team.
"But I think eventually, at some point in time, we're going to have a good basketball team."
--Reaction to the artsy decor of the new Matthew Knight Arena was mixed last season, but there was almost unanimous discord about one element: Few people could actually see the midcourt stripe from beyond the second row. It was virtually invisible to a TV audience. That's been remedied. The Ducks have a traditional, easy-to-find midcourt line again, and all is well in the world.
--The Ducks will be tested early. They open their schedule Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt, which was ranked No. 7 in the preseason coaches poll. Three of Oregon's first six games will be on the road, with treks to Nebraska and BYU. Oregon will play two of its first three Pac-12 weekends away from home.
--There are plenty of new arrivals, but there also was one unexpected defection after last season. Senior-to-be PG Malcolm Armstead, who averaged 8.6 points and 4.4 assists in 2010-11, transferred last spring.
LAST YEAR: 21-18 overall, 7-11 in the Pac-10
HEAD COACH: Dana Altman, 22nd year as head coach (21-18 in one year at Oregon; 413-245 career)
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's the real deal. It's not hype. Jabari Brown is the real deal." -- Senior F Olu Ashaolu, on freshman G Jabari Brown, a consensus top-25 national recruit from Oakland, Calif.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: PG Johnathan Loyd, SG Garrett Sim, SF E.J. Singler, PF Olu Ashaolu, C Tony Woods.
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: It was an ideal year for the Ducks to make a summer foreign tour. During their five-game exhibition trip to Italy in August, they got plenty of opportunity to blend the veterans with four freshmen and four transfers. There are loads of lineup options, including the possibility that freshman G Jabari Brown will quickly work himself into the starting unit. Brown led the team in scoring on its trip to Italy. Loyd and Sim both can play point guard, as can freshman Bruce Barron and transfer Devoe Joseph.
"Guys are going to have to compete for playing time, which is a great situation for a coach," coach Dana Altman said. "I like the guys, I like the way they've worked to prepare themselves. I just hope they know we've got a tremendous amount of work ahead of us."
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: Jabari Brown, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Oakland, Calif., is the headliner in a recruiting class rated among the nation's top 25. He is a deep sharpshooter and potentially big-time scorer who could work himself into the starting unit if his defense satisfies coach Dana Altman. Freshman PG Bruce Barron, who chose Oregon over Washington, Oklahoma State and DePaul, had summer arthroscopic knee surgery and missed the trip to Italy. He has spent the fall getting up to full speed. The other freshmen are 6-1 G Brett Kingma and 6-9 PF Austin Kuemper.
There is immediate help onboard via four transfers, led by Wake Forest defector Tony Woods, a 6-11, 250-pound junior center. Woods left Wake two years ago following a domestic dispute that led to community service and anger-management classes. He spent a year attending classes at a junior college, and he arrives at Oregon with two years of eligibility. "Tony Woods is a beast down low," Kingma said.
Senior G Devoe Joseph, a mid-year transfer from Minnesota, is not eligible to play until Dec. 10. Joseph averaged 11.3 points and 3.5 assists through eight games for the Golden Gophers before being suspended by coach Tubby Smith for violating team rules. Senior F Olu Ashaolu can play right away because he already had graduated before transferring from Louisiana Tech, where he contributed 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds a year ago. He reminds Oregon's coaches of Joevan Catron, who patrolled the paint for the Ducks last season.
The other two transfers are 6-11 junior C Chris Larson and 6-7 junior F Carlos Emory, both JC products.
--Junior F E.J. Singler is the club's top returning scorer (11.7 ppg) and rebounder (5.6 rpg). He averaged 13.3 ppg during the Ducks' six-game run to the College Basketball Invitational crown, hitting double digits in every game and scoring the game-winning basket in the 71-69 clincher over Creighton.
--Junior G Garrett Sim, who has played both backcourt spots during his days at Oregon, probably will continue to do so. He averaged 8.2 ppg last season and scored 20 in the Ducks' second-round CBI victory over Duquesne.
--Senior F Jeremy Jacob, who missed the second half of last season after surgery on both knees over the previous year, seems healthy. Jacob, who averaged 6.2 points and 3.5 rebounds last season, did not play after Feb. 12.
Robinson's lofty goal: an NCAA bid
Coach Craig Robinson's Beavers didn't quite meet expectations the past two seasons after blowing the ceiling off in his debut campaign of 2008-09.
So what is his approach to this season?
"I want to make the NCAA Tournament," Robinson declared during the team's annual media day. "That's how you're measured in this day and age, so that's what I think our goal should be."
He's right, of course. The NCAA tourney is what fans, media and television care about. But the Beavers haven't played in the event since sharing the Pac-10 title in 1989-90, when Gary Payton was a senior.
Since then, the Beavers have enjoyed exactly one winning season.
Robinson, brother-in-law to President Obama, squeezed an 18-18 record out of the Beavers his first season, a year after they were 0-18 in the Pac-10. That quickly got the Corvallis, Ore., crowd on his side. The Beavers are 25-38 since, but Robinson is excited about the prospects of this team.
"This is the best team we've ever had," Robinson said, referring to his time at the school. "We can compete with anybody in the league. We just want to make Gill Coliseum a place where we win all the time."
There are some reasons for optimism, starting with junior guard Jared Cunningham, whose "Kiss the Sky" tip-dunk vs. Arizona last year was one of the season's best nationwide.
Robinson feels good enough about his roster that he plans to shift the defensive emphasis from zone to man-to-man.
"This is the most athletic team I've ever coached," Robinson said. "These guys also have a great knowledge of what's needed to be good at this game. ... There's no coaching effort, no coaching attitude, no coaching behavior. All the things I had to do in the past."
--Because the team has more depth and quickness, coach Craig Robinson is switching from a 1-3-1 zone to man-to-man defense. "With this team, I can play more man-to-man than zone, and that will help us in a variety of ways," Robinson said. "I think it's easier to guard people, and it's easier to rebound, which is a big issue for us. When you play man-to-man, you're going to foul, but we have the depth now." Robinson said the Beavers won't abandon the zone altogether. Whereas a year ago they played zone perhaps 80 percent of the time, he predicts using man-to-man about 70 percent of the time this season. And he believes the man defense will make the zone more effective. One way or the other, the Beavers' defense must improve. They led the Pac-10 in steals (9.45 per game), but there was a price. They ranked last in scoring defense (72.8 ppg allowed) and field-goal defense (46.1 percent) and struggled to stop 3-point shooters.
--Junior G Jared Cunningham, chosen as one of three team captains, had 128 steals in his two seasons, just two fewer than Oregon State legend Gary Payton had in his first two years. Sharing the captain's role are Angus Brandt, a 6-foot-10 junior post, and senior forward Kevin McShane, a former walk-on.
--Convinced that he has established a foundation of discipline, Robinson has moved early-season practices from 5:30 a.m. as they were scheduled in the past -- to 1:30 p.m. "That tells you what kind of team we have," Robinson said.
LAST YEAR: 11-20 overall, 5-13 in the Pac-10
HEAD COACH: Craig Robinson, sixth year as head coach (40-49 in three years at Oregon State; 70-77 career)
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This team is unlike any other Beaver team that's been around for two decades. The chemistry between all of us is so unique and so different. It's unlike any other team I've been on, here at Oregon State and also before. It's a great feeling and really exciting." -- Senior F Kevin McShane.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: PG Ahmad Starks, SG Jared Cunningham, SF Devon Collier, PF Joe Burton, C Angus Brandt.
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: The Beavers have the flexibility to go with a three-man perimeter group that gives them excellent quickness. While Cunningham has developed into perhaps the Pac-12's most dynamic player, SG Roberto Nelson, a hot-shot high schooler who needed two years to gain NCAA eligibility, gave a glimpse of what the fuss is about when he scored 34 points in a late-season game vs. Arizona State. Starks, a 5-foot-8 sophomore, made 42 3-pointers last season and has gained strength and confidence, according to Craig Robinson. "With Jared, Ahmad and Roberto, we have three of the fastest guys, possibly, in this league," Robinson said.
Robinson has plenty of puzzle pieces in the front line. Besides Collier and Burton and Brandt, he can plug in Kevin McShane or Eric Moreland, a former UTEP transfer who played only four games last season before injuring his shoulder.
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: The Beavers have just two fresh faces, and freshman F Daniel Gomis has intriguing upside. A 6-10, 208-pound native of Senegal played last season at Oak Hill Academy and is considered a good shot-blocker and rebounder. But Gomis broke his leg in the offseason and could wind up being redshirted. Oregon State may get an early contribution from G Challe Barton, a 6-3 freshman from Sweden. He has a high basketball IQ, international experience and reportedly is a good perimeter shooter. Barton was recruited strictly via videotape, but he is described by Robinson as "better than advertised," so he could provide much-needed depth in the backcourt.
--Junior SG Jared Cunningham scored in double digits 22 times last season, with seven games of 20 points or more. He was the only player on the team last year to average 10 points or more.
--Questions remain about much-hyped sophomore G Roberto Nelson. He scored 34 points late in the season against Arizona State, but sandwiched a total of six points in four games around that performance, shooting 3-for-15 in the four outings.
--Sophomore PG Ahmad Starks, meanwhile, got better as the season progressed. He averaged 13.8 points over the final five games.
--Junior C Angus Brandt, who averaged 4.8 points and 2.5 rebounds for the Beavers a year ago, played last summer for Australia in the World University Games in China.
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