Oregon Preview

UCLA heads up to Oregon, to one of the toughest places to play in the country, to face the first-place Ducks, who haven't lost at home yet this year. Are the Bruins up for it?

13th ranked UCLA (14-5, 6-3) journeys to one of the last legendary arenas in the country, Mac Court, to take on the Oregon Ducks (15-5, 7-2) in a key Pac-10 showdown on Thursday (the game will be televised live in the Los Angeles area on FSN at 7:30 PM).

If you've never been to Mac Court, the gym goes up more than out, rising almost straight up, so you get a feeling of intense claustrophobia. You also worry that the stands could all tip over onto the floor at any moment. When the place is packed with rabid Duck fans, and it's always packed with rabid Duck fans, the whole place literally shakes from the noise and it becomes impossible for opposing players or coaches to communicate with one another. Presumably, Oregon Head Coach Ernie Kent and his team have figured out how to sign plays. Buffy herself would be afraid to go into "The Pit," even with all of the Scoobies behind her.

On the other had, UCLA has won there 2 of the last 3 years. Go figure…

Oregon lost 3 road games early this year, to Massachusetts, Portland and Minnesota, but I see those losses as essentially meaningless to any analysis of the Web-footed ones. The games were in late November and early December, when all sorts of strange things were happening, even in Maui and Westwood. Of more interest are Oregon's Pac-10 away defeats at the hands of ASU and Washington, 2 teams who lost to UCLA on their home floor. In both games, Oregon just got beat at their own game, race horse basketball. ASU won 93-85, UDub 97-92. Oregon's best defense is a high powered offense, but it's not as simple as that. Oregon has so many good shooters and finishers, they can literally exhaust an opponent. A tired, hurried opponent is unlikely to shoot the ball well for very long, and Oregon will keep the pressure up until the other team finally wears out or outright collapses. Oregon wore out Stanford, 87-79. Arizona collapsed, 105-75. At Tucson, Oregon was up by 25, but Arizona went on a 24-2 run (sound familiar?) before tiring out at the end as Oregon won, 90-80.

Oregon's high-powered offense has three main components. First is a "speed game" off an inbounds pass. Second is a motion offense as a secondary option if the speed game fails to generate a score. Third is the break off rebounds and turnovers. Oregon might have the best break in the Pac-10 and one of the best in the country, mainly because they have a great point guard with two great finishers to play alongside him, all of whom rebound well enough and pas well enough to initiate the break themselves, plus superior interior defenders and rebounders. Oregon leads the Pac-10 in scoring (85.8 ppg), scoring margin (16.6 ppg), FG% (49%), FT% (78.4%), and 3-point FG% (42.3%). They're also 2nd in rebounding margin and 4th in turnover margin, which partly explains their ability to break so well.

The Oregon "speed game" has some similarities to Kansas' "speed game". One pass usually pushes the ball into the hands of a wing. The wing can either go one on one before the defense sets (Oregon has the best 1-2 punch of one-on-one wings in the conference) or he will reverse the ball out to the PG. The Oregon C is high, setting a pick for the PG trailing the play as he receives the ball (like a secondary option on a break). The PG will either pop the 3 before his defender is set or use the high pick to shake his defender and hit the 3. No wonder Oregon also leads the Pac-10 in 3-point FGs. If you want to beat the Ducks, you have to disrupt the speed game. If the speed game doesn't generate an early 3 or score off a drive by the wing, the Oregon C rolls down into the lane and the PG initiates the motion offense.

Defensively, Oregon mostly plays man d in the halfcourt. They will pressure the ball, almost always a fullcourt man press when they want to increase the tempo. Oregon is 3rd in the conference in FG% defense (41%) and 4th in 3-point FG% defense (32.5%), but a lot of the Ducks' opponents miss their shots because they're rushing or tired or trying to overcome a 15-point deficit in a hurry, rather than because the Oregon players are sticking on them like glue. The Ducks do overplay passing lanes and go for steals, confident that their post defenders will rotate over and stop dribble penetration. The Ducks have one of the best groups of post defenders in the conference. They don't block a lot of shots, but they play great position d, they deny space to opposing players down low and, as I said, they seem to always get in the way of anybody who succeeds in breaking through the perimeter line of the defense.

Fred Jones, 6-4 209 SR SG (16.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.6 spg), was a 2-time Oregon POY in his respective classification at Barlow High in Gresham. Kent and his excellent recruiting coordinator, Greg Graham, started the renaissance of the Ducks' program by signing Fred. He's probably the strongest and most athletic backcourt player in the conference. He's improved his ballhandling and outside shooting each season (52.5% FGs, 86.3% FTs, 30.4% 3s), but is still at his best breaking defenders down one-on-one, taking it to the rack, dunking lob passes and finishing on the break. Most important of all, Fred has really improved his defense and shot selection this year, becoming much more of a total team player than in his prior 3 seasons, and that's played a huge factor in Oregon's success this year.

Fred is flanked by the 2 Lukes. Luke Jackson, 6-7 215 SO SG (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 45.5% FGs, 84.1% FTs, 36.5% 3s) was also a 2-time Oregon POY at Creswell High. Luke is a rising star who will be known on a national level once Oregon gets into the NCAA Tournament this season. I look at Jason Kapono, Casey Jacobsen, Jason Gardner and Sam Clancy, and I honestly believe that Luke will surpass them all before he's through with college. He reminds me a lot of another big-time Oregon high school star, Mike Dunleavy, and I believe that Luke will be a future All-American and high first round NBA Draft pick. He's a terrific shooter who can nail the 3 or create for himself off the dribble. He tore Casey Jacobsen apart in Eugene, abusing him for 29 points and scoring virtually at will. He had a triple-double last year and he's a remarkable playmaker and passer. His rebounding and defense are solid, but need improvement.

The other Luke is Luke Ridnour, 6-2 165 SO PG (14.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.8/1 A/TO ratio, 1.3 spg, 49.2% FGs, 85.5% FTs, 47.6% 3s), who was a 3-time State POY at Blaine High. Gee, with all of these former POYs, I wonder why Oregon is so good? Tracy and I rated Luke the #1 PG in the west when he was a h.s. SR. A recruiting guru who will remain nameless once told me after Luke's FR year at Oregon that he thought that Luke would never amount to much in the Pac-10. His reasoning: "Luke is white, and there aren't any good white point guards." Um… So, anyway, as you can see, Luke is a lights-out shooter. He will bring the ball up the court in the speed game or on a break and just stop and pop the 3 like it's a layup. He can get red hot and hit 5 3s in a row if you don't guard him, and he might hit 5 in a row even if you do guard him, as he gets great elevation on his J, so that he's really like a 6-5 player when he's shooting it. He's also a superior playmaker and passer who rarely makes mistakes. He's a solid individual defender who could use some work in that department, but again Oregon's team defense is what counts.

Off the bench, Oregon relies primarily on 2 excellent role players, James Davis, 5-10 170 SO SG (7.7 ppg, 1.5 apg, 50% FGs, 90.5% FTs, 43.8% 3s), and Anthony Lever, 6-3 185 SR SG (6.5 ppg, 47.2% FGs, 80% FTs, 53.6% 3s). Davis is very quick, will also shoot the 3 off a break and is very hard to keep track off in Oregon's halfcourt offense. He's a road runner-like perpetual motion machine who just outruns most defenders early in the shot clock and he really likes to see zones. Lever, the son of former ASU and NBA star "Fat" Lever, was called Anthony Norwood last year, but he's still the same player, a very good all-around guard who plays superior defense and can hit the long J or penetrate into the lane with equal facility. No other Pac-10 team has 2 backup guards this good.

Up front, Oregon has 3 strong players: Chris Christofferson, 7-2 300 SR C (8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 52.8% FGs, 57.7% FTs), Robert Johnson, 6-8 235 JR PF (7.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 50.4% FGs, 69.2% FTs) and Brian Helquist, 6-9 275 JR C (4.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 57.6% FGs, 61.1% FTs). Chris, the Great Dane, actually went to high school in Ojai, which is a far cry from Denmark and quite a bit hotter. He was signed as a "project" out of h.s. who is now drawing NBA attention. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway), he takes up a lot of space at both ends. He sets massive picks in the lane and is unstoppable when he pins you on his back deep inside (he as an excellent drop-step from the left side of the basket). On defense, he forced Curtis Borchardt outside all game and he alters many more shots than he blocks.

Johnson is a JUCO transfer from Frisco who Kent compares to Dennis Rodman. In a good way. I'm not sure about that, but Johnson is one of the better rebounders in the Pac-10 and he can score off a variety of solid post moves within 4 feet of the basket. He plays very good individual defense and is quicker than most "bangers." Helquist, who may have come to Eugene because the Ducks already have a Lindquist and an Anderson in addition to Christofferson ( I wonder if Kent calls his team meals "smorgasbords"?), is arguably the best backup C in the Pac-10 and I think he will a very solid starter for this team next year. He has the best set of low-post skills on the team, good hands and again is a little more mobile than his size might indicate. Of course, I don't believe he really weighs 275 either, he looks maybe 250 at most, probably less.

If Kent really wants to run someone into the ground, he will also use Ben Lindquist, 6-4 195 SR SG (2.5 ppg), Mark Michaelis, 6-10 230 SR PF (2.1 ppg) and/or Jay Anderson, 6-9 220 SO C (1.9 ppg). The more the merrier…

So, the Ducks are a highly skilled perimeter team with a tough, physical frontcourt who like to run and gun. They are aiming for 90 points per game. They hope to force a fast tempo, more through their explosive offense than their defense. They can press fullcourt, but more so to force tempo than turnovers. They will rely on their tough defensive back line to cause enough misses and control the defensive glass until their constant hail of 3s and breaks wears an opponent out. They've already put down 2 teams UCLA couldn't beat, Arizona and Stanford. They're 11-0 at home.

In UCLA, the Ducks will be facing the 2nd best shooting team in the conference. The Bruins are 2nd in both FG% (48%) and 3-point FG% (41.8%), despite the fact that some UCLA fans complain that UCLA either doesn't set enough screens for its J shooters or else plays "playground basketball" or lacks the "fundamentals" or doesn't "execute" like a real college team. Apparently, a few UCLA fans see one thing and reality is somewhere else. As an example, UCLA also has the best 3-point FG% defense in the Pac-10 (32.3%), while many BRO readers still harp about UCLA's inability to close out on opponents' 3s. Apparently, the Bruins are doing something right on defense. Actually, for the last 3 weeks, they've been doing 4 things right on defense that they weren't doing in the first 2 weeks of the conference schedule: 1) They're keeping the ball away from most opposing Cs underneath by fronting the post; 2) they're doing a better job of stifling dribble penetration by fronting the post, having Matt Barnes play higher in the zone and getting Ced Bozeman back in the lineup; 3) they're in fact doing a better job of closing out on 3s up top by fighting through screens and using Dan Gadzuric to help them do that; and 4) by virtue of point number 2, they're forcing more teams to shoot their 3s off the dribble, rather than spotting up, and that's simply a lower percentage shot.

The question is can UCLA do a good enough job of defending Oregon's perimeter attack to prevent the Ducks from racking up points in a hurry? Oregon has an advantage over every other team in the Pac-10 in this regard, because Luke Ridnour and James Davis shoot the 3 off the dribble better than everyone else in the conference. But more importantly, Oregon gets so many good looks from 3 because of its speed game and its breaks, and because its motion offense does a solid job of setting up spot up opportunities. If the Bruin players do a good job of fighting through picks out of their matchup zone, that will take care of the motion. If the Bruins do a good job of hitting a high percentage of their shots, milking the shot clock when they're cold, drawing a lot of fouls and getting back on defense, they might be able to staunch the Oregon running game, denying both open 3s and layups. Someone has to deny that ball reversal back to Ridnour off the speed game. In fact, someone has to keep the ball out of Luke's hands as much as possible.

Oregon is a very deep team, of course, and Lavin has been shortening his bench in tight games. I have to wonder if UCLA can play with enough energy and intensity on defense to disrupt Oregon's offensive schemes if the only guys off the bench are going to be Rico Hines (some d), Dijon Thompson (some d) and TJ Cummings (no d), while the starters are all going to play 33 minutes plus. I suspect not. I suspect that both Ryan Walcott and Andre Patterson will have to see PT in this game, just like they did against Kansas. Unlike Kansas, Luke Ridnour is a lot better and smarter than either Aaron Miles or Jeff Boschee, and if Dan Gadzuric is jumping out to harass Luke in the speed game, I'm a little worried Luke will jump into him a lot and draw fouls. Unless you're right under the basket, the refs will call the defensive player for the foul 90% of the time if there's contact, even if the offensive player initiates it. That's just the way it is in college bb. That could be a key factor in this game.

Maybe UCLA, like Washington and ASU, can just defeat Oregon at its own game, by racing up the floor and matching them basket for basket until it's the Ducks who falter at the end. No way. UCLA clearly lacks the overall team speed and quickness of both UDub and ASU. Remember, this ASU team just beat the same Arizona squad that blew UCLA away in 13 minutes when the Bruins lost their poise, turned it over and forced up too many rushed shots. And those were road games for the Ducks, anyway. If the Bruins are going to beat the Ducks at Mac Court, they are going to have to do it "their way," by playing energetic defense and focused, disciplined offense. The Bruins have the most controlled offense in the Pac-10, a 1-4 with only one really good one on one player in Matt Barnes, and when the players execute it properly, spacing themselves and the defense out to make double-teams impossible without leaving spot up shooters wide open or Dan isolated 2 feet from the basket with someone haplessly trapped behind him, this team will hit 50% of its shots and over 40% of its 3s against any defense, regardless of what the defense does. But the Bruins have only managed to really play their brand of offense and defense for an entire 40 minutes in 2 games all season, Alabama and Kansas.

It's time do to do it again.

Prediction: UCLA 85, Oregon 82.

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