The Ducks are hoping to win their first Pac-10 championship in 57 years. They can do it by beating the Bruins or having the Arizona Wildcats defeat the Cal Bears in Tucson on Saturday. Either way, Oregon gets the Pac-10 regular season crown and the #1 seed in the second inaugural Pac-10 Tournament, which begins next Thursday. If Oregon wins the Pac-10 championship, it will almost certainly be at worst a 4th seed and probably a 3rd seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Ducks also add the Pac-10 Tourney title as well, they will probably earn a #2 seed and the top spot in the West Regional among Pac-10 schools despite few quality non-conference wins (Oregon's best wins this year were at home against Pepperdine and Louisville).
If UCLA defeats Oregon, the Bruins' own RPI and strength of schedule should earn them a #4 or # 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At that point, UCLA and Arizona will also have a much better RPI than Oregon because of a better record against highly-ranked opponents from outside the conference and the top spot in the West Regional (and possibly a #3 seed) could very well be up for grabs for whoever wins the Pac-10 Tournament (or simply performs the best between these three schools). Stanford, USC and Cal lack any quality wins over good non-conference opponents and will have to win the Pac-10 Tournament to earn a higher seed than UCLA, Arizona and Oregon (assuming UCLA defeats Oregon, Arizona defeats Cal and Oregon wins the Pac-10 regular season race).
Ernie Kent has taken his team from 5-13 in the conference last year to 13-4 this year mainly by working a huge turnaround on the part of his returning players while adding in a couple of key newcomers. One change was just a question of maturity: JRs Fred Jones and Chris Christoffersen became SRs, and FR Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson and James Davis became SOs and have really stepped up their games. Another change has been a lot more unselfish play. The third major change has been defense, defense, and defense. The fourth and most significant change: The deadliest speed game this side of Lawrence, Kansas.
The "speed game" is the key to the Ducks' offense. Oregon went 7-24 from 3 and made 21 turnovers against USC on the Trojans' home floor and still came away with the victory because the Ducks scored 33 of their 67 points off dunks, layups and FTs engendered from the break. As the name implies, the Ducks just don't break off rebounds and turnovers, they break after made baskets as well. The key plays: The inbounds pass from the 4 man to Luke Ridnour, followed by a quick 50-foot pass across halfcourt to another guard/wing. The remaining wing and the 5 man have already run ahead of everyone else. The 5 man establishes deep position under the basket while the weakside wing takes a spot at the 3-point line. The ballhandler has the option of stopping and popping the 3, feeding the low post, hitting the weakside wing for a 3 or penetrating on the dribble and either taking it all the way, dumping it off to the post player, kicking it out to the weakside wing or tossing it back out to Luke Ridnour, who by now has joined the play like a trailer on a break and is ready for a wide-open spot up 3 at the top of the arc.
Most teams lack the quickness and energy up front to get back in time to disrupt the speed game after rebounds or even inbounds passes. If you live or die on the offensive glass, like USC, you will give up a lot of easy buckets at the other end. The only two ways to disrupt the speed game (and beat the Ducks, IMO) would be to 1) apply enough pressure on the inbounds pass and on Luke Ridnour to prevent that key secondary 50 foot-pass (USC tried this with a zone press and a lot of trapping in the backcourt and caused numerous turnovers, thus giving the Trojans a chance to win the game) and/or 2) get back on defense. Getting back on defense means keeping at least three men above the FT line on each offensive sequence and having a 5 man with the stamina and athleticism to consistently beat the Oregon 5 man down the floor and deny him the ball.
If Oregon fails to score off the speed game, they will run mainly motion sets, with some high-low post game. The Ducks prefer to have both post players under the basket in the initial set, keeping the lane clear for penetration by wings Fred Jones and Luke Jackson, but they will also clear out one post player to the high post to set up a combination low post isolation play and high pick. If the low post player draws a double-team, he can dish the ball out to the strong side wing or the player coming around the pick at the high post. The Ducks run their halfcourt offense very efficiently. Against zones, they have the advantage of two players, Luke Ridnour and James Davis, who have the unusual ability to hit a high percentage of 3s off the dribble. Thus, the Ducks prefer to attack a zone from the outside rather than from the inside out. Against USC, this strategy didn't work until the last 9 minutes of the game, when Oregon finally started hitting its 3s, took the lead and forced USC out of its zone.
Oregon leads the conference in scoring (86.9 ppg), FG% (49.3%), FT% (77.4%), 3-Point FG% (43.2%) and 3s per game (8.5). In short, even the FT line is a weapon for this club. They're also 4th in the conference in FG% defense and 5th in 3-Point FG% defense, plus 3rd in rebounding margin and 4th in TO margin. Needless to say, UCLA can't match those numbers even though the Bruins remain 2nd in the conference in FG% and 3-Point FG% and 1st in 3-Point FG% defense (and 4th in rebounding margin).
Oregon prefers to play a straight up man defense, but will employ zone when necessary. The Ducks have the best interior defenders in the conference, and they rely on them heavily to dissuade dribble penetration and scoring down low. Kent will have his players overplay passing lanes against a more structured offense and then he packs the defense in against a motion (the Duck man resembles a matchup zone at times), preferring to give up the 3 than allowing dribble penetration or an entry pass into the low post. His team will press selectively for a few minutes, but they don't have the energy to press and play the speed game for long. Kent usually has his inside players front their men. This gives them better vision of the ball for defensive rebounds and also keys the speed game because the 5 man is already in front of his opposite number when the shot goes up. The Ducks play defense the old-fashioned way: Everyone works hard, helps their teammates and applies the fundamentals.
A key weakness in the Oregon defense: Apart from Fred Jones, Robert Johnson and Anthony Lever, the Ducks lack outstanding man defenders. If an offensive scheme can spread the Ducks out, like USC did many times, Oregon's defense will break down consistently against quick dribble penetration and an accurate inside-out game down low. If you want to score on the Ducks, you have to make the individual players play defense on their own, without enough help from their teammates, and you have to force the Oregon post players to play behind their men inside by providing a credible scoring presence under the basket. This seems simple enough in theory, but practice is another thing altogether.
Fred Jones, 6-4 210 SR SG (18.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.8 spg, 53% FGs, 35.4% 3s, 85.3% FTs), leads the Ducks. Fred has staked his claim to the title of Pac-10 POY. In his last 8 games, he's averaged 23.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 4.4.apg. Only Stanford's Casey Jacobsen has managed comparable numbers down the conference stretch drive, and Fred's team is the one about to snag the championship. A tremendously explosive athlete, Fred throws down monster jams on the break and will hit the 3 or break people down off the dribble in the halfcourt. He's also the Ducks' best individual defender, a big turnaround from last season. Many NBA scouts now regard Mr. Jones as a first round NBA Draft choice. Fred's main weakness is his streaky shooting from 3, which has nevertheless improved greatly since his FR year.
Luke Ridnour, 6-2 165 SO PG (15.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.9/1 A/TO ratio, 47.4% FGs, 45.5% 3s, 87% FTs), might be the best PG in the Pac-10 and one of the top 10 in the country even though he's only a SO. A great shooter who gets superb elevation on his shot, Luke has an assortment of entertaining but deadly behind the back, no look fancy passes. He also hands out a lot of simple, effective passes as well, but he definitely has a showman's flair, and when he's dishing and Fred Jones is dunking, the Ducks are arguably as entertaining a team as there is in the country. He does lack the quickness to play good individual defense, and he can be bothered by really quick pressure. UCLA, unfortunately, can't apply really quick pressure.
Luke Jackson, 6-7 215 SO SF (16.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.4 spg, 46.5% FGs, 40.7% 3s, 86.1% FTs), is the 3rd member of this superior guard/wing triumvirate. His best offensive move is a slashing drive into the paint and a quick jump stop for the short J. He is a good shooter from 3, but lacks Luke's elevation, so he can be collared. He's a very good passer who can run the point. Like Luke R, he lacks the foot speed to play great man d against a very quick player, but then Oregon usually assigns Fred Jones to guard the other team's quickest guard/wing, regardless of position. Luke sometimes goes stone cold from 3.
Chris Christoffersen, 7-2 300 SR (8.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 52.7% FGs, 55% FTs) is a very effective post player at both ends for the Ducks. As an illustration of Oregon's offense, Chris has scored almost as many points off fast breaks this year as he has down low in the post off the halfcourt offense. Needless to say, he runs the floor as well as any big man in the conference other than Dan Gadzuric. He uses his huge body to cut off dribble penetration and he does a good job of keeping rival Cs from establishing position on offense. He sets good picks and does an excellent job of getting down low and keeping his spot. Chris is prone to foul trouble, and he obviously lacks the quickness to rotate defensively if the Ducks' exterior defenders are spread too thin.
Robert Johnson, 6-8 235 JR PF (7.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 54.2% FGs, 60% FTs), is the team's top newcomer. A true 4, he has great upper body strength and a nose for the ball. He plays very good individual and help d inside, and he has the quickness to follow people away from the basket and keep in front of them. He can control the defensive glass at times and keys the speed game with his board work. On offense, his game is fairly limited, but he will score on a drop-step inside if you give him inside position and no one comes over to help.
The main guns off the bench are James Davis, 5-10 170 SO PG/SG (6.9 ppg, 49.6% FGs, 88.5% FTs, 43.8% 3s), Anthony Lever, 6-3 185 SR PG/SG (6.5 ppg, 46% FGs, 78.6% FTs, 53% 3s), and Brian Helquist, 6-9 275 JR C (4.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 54.3% FGs, 66.7% FTs). James is a cat-quick gunner who will smoke 3s off the dribble from 24 feet out, something few NBA players under 6-3 can do consistently. Anthony is a tough defender and steady ballhandler who has been on fire from behind the arc all year. Brian, another JC transfer, might be the best backup C in the Pac-10. He's a real power player with some good moves and mobility inside. But he definitely isn't as effective as Chris, and teams want Chris in foul trouble as much as possible.
Jason Kapono, 6-7 JR SF (17.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 47.2% FGs, 47.1% 3s, 86.7% FTs), continues to lead the Bruins in scoring and shooting. Billy Knight, 6-4 SR SG (14.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.2 spg, 46.7% FGs, 41.6% 3s, 82% FTs) appears to be struggling in the motion offense and has been cold from 3 for nearly a month, though he hit 3-6 against OSU. Matt Barnes, 6-8 SR PF (13.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.1 spg, 48.4% FGs, 62.5% FTs, 44.2% 3s), has finally gotten his wish and is now effectively a wing player in the motion offense. Dan Gadzuric, 6-11 SR C (11.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 55.9% FGs, 46.2% FTs), continues to play very well despite a letdown against Oregon State. He is almost certainly the key player for UCLA in this game.
TJ Cummings, 6-9 SO PF (8.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 51.9% FGs, 74% FTs), will also be a key player, as he will have to spell Dan in the post for at least 10 minutes if the UCLA 5 men are going to keep up with the pace of the Oregon speed game. Will TJ play with the requisite energy and smarts? Stay tuned. FR PG Ced Bozeman, 6-7 (3.9 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.6 A/TO ratio, 43.2% FGs, 30% 3s, 30% FTs), FR SG/SF Dijon Thompson, 6-8 (3.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 41.3% FGs, 28.6% 3s, 76.9% FTs), FR PF Andre Patterson, 6-6 (2.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .0.7 bpg, 51% FGs), and FR PG Ryan Walcott, 6-0 (1.8 ppg, 42.9% 3s, 76.9% FTs) will have to all make strong contributions at both ends, but especially the defensive end, as they are the quickest players on the team and the players best suited to breaking down the Oregon defense off the dribble.
Rico Hines, 6-4 SR SG (0.8 ppg), will no doubt play hard in his last game at Pauley Pavilion. Hopefully, the two charges he takes on Saturday will be against either Chris Christoffersen or Fred Jones…
In theory, UCLA has the tools to score against Oregon. Applying a motion offense which isolates individual defenders and opens up the lane to penetration and entry passes into Dan Gadzuric, the Bruins could score a lot of points in the halfcourt. If Dan gets the ball, he can get Chris in foul trouble. Dan scoring a lot down low and getting Chris out of the game would be a key element in any Bruin victory.
But almost every UCLA game really comes down to defense. Here, the Bruins don't seem to have the answers for the Ducks, theoretically or otherwise. UCLA has been rebounding well of late. That would help. Dan has been playing very well and can both defend Chris down low and keep up with him in the speed game. That would help. But UCLA lacks the ability to disrupt either the inbounds pass to Luke Ridnour or the secondary pass up the floor. They will keep 3 defenders back behind the FT line as often as possible, but players like Jason Kapono and Billy Knight and TJ Cummings lack the speed and/or instinct to race back on defense after every play. So, UCLA's chances of neutralizing Oregon's speed game appear to be slim or none.
In addition, the Bruins' 1-2-2 matchup zone is ill suited to containing the Ducks' 3-point attack. UCLA does have the best 3-Point FG% defense in the Pac-10 because they do a good job of limiting the higher percentage spot-up 3s that come from dribble penetration or passes out of the low post. But with Luke Ridnour and James Davis on hand, the Ducks will likely hit a bunch of 3s anyway, since they can shoot so well off the dribble, even from long distance.
UCLA was overwhelmed in Eugene because they 1) took a lot of bad shots (UCLA hit only 41.8% of its FGs), 2) failed to stop the Oregon speed game (the Ducks got 16 [!] layups, dunks or FT tries off the speed game after made UCLA baskets), and 3) Oregon hit a lot of 3s off the dribble (10-22, 45.5%). Maybe the motion offense will give UCLA better shots this time around. But I haven't seen any sign that the Bruins are able or willing to play the kind of defense needed to beat the Pac-10's best team.
Prediction: Oregon 80, UCLA 70.