Against the Beavers, the Bruins played one of their better halves of basketball in several weeks in the second half after displaying poor focus and execution in the first half. The question that presents itself is this: Ss the second half of the OSU game indicative of how the Bruins will perform for the remainder of the season or will the Bruins revert to their sub-par performances against both Washington and USC?
To find the answer, the Bruins will again be playing in a game that can be billed as "the biggest game of the year," and fans better get used to that idea because with the conference race so tight, it is imperative that the Bruins bring their ‘A' game for the remaining three games of the regular season.
The Oregon Ducks come into the game having just defeated the same USC team that beat the Bruins fairly handily a week ago. Coaching issues and rumors aside, the Ducks are probably playing as well now as at any time in the season. They have gone 3-4 in their past 7 games, but those four losses have come by a combined total of 8 points. And they have won 3 of their past 4 and probably should have beaten Washington in that span.
When looking at the individual Duck players, you have to start with sophomore Malik Hairston (6'6" 200 lbs.), who is leading the Ducks at 14.9 PPG and is 2nd on the team with 4.5 RPG. Over the past several weeks, Hairston has displayed the kind of offense that made him such a huge recruit coming out of high school. His shooting percentage is at 49%, which is pretty good for someone who takes as many jumpers as Hairston does, but more importantly his three-point shooting percentage has risen to just over 41%. He has accomplished this by not settling for jumpers as he did earlier in the year. He is now using his ability to beat his man off the dribble to set up his jump shot, as his defender has had to sag off him in order to prevent him from getting to the hoop. It is important to note that while Hairston has taken the most shots this season of any Duck, he has only attempted the third-most three-pointers and has made the second-most on the team, 41. More than likely Cedric Bozeman will be matched up on Hairston. It is imperative that Bozeman use his length to make it difficult for Hairston to get his shot off because Bozeman will have to sag off Hairston a bit. Hairston is simply a bit quicker than Bozeman. Mike Roll will be assigned to Hairston at times, and as well as Roll has been playing; this is not a good match-up for him. He will have to sag off Hairston, too, but he doesn't have the length that Bozeman does to help him defend Hairston's jump shot.
At the point, Oregon will go with junior Aaron Brooks (6'0" 165 lbs.), who has the type of penetrating ability that has given the Bruins such a difficult time over the past two weeks. Before the 2nd half of the Oregon State game, Jordan Farmar had a very difficult time keeping opposing point guards out of the lane on dribble penetration. First was Washington's Justin Dentmon, and then USC's two-headed monster of Ryan Francis and Dwayne Shackelford. Then on Thursday, OSU's Jason Fontenet was able to beat Farmar into the lane in the first half, although he didn't have the same results as the previous point guards. Brooks is a penetrate-first type of player. His shooting percentages from both the floor and from behind the arc have been in the mid-to-low-30% range all season. In the first meeting of the year between the Ducks and the Bruins, Brooks displayed his tendency to play a bit out of control and made several poor decisions at critical times. Add to that the fact that Farmar played one of his better defensive halves of the year in the second half of that game, and you can tell how the Bruins were able to win that contest, which was a grinder, 56-49. But Brooks is playing more under control and is making better decisions since that game.
It's a good bet, based on Thursday night's performance, that fans will see quite a bit of Darren Collison in this game. His defensive quickness is superior to Farmar's and if he can couple that with the offensive game he displayed on Thursday then you can expect him to play major minutes and make a major contribution with those minutes.
At the off-guard spot was normally sophomore Bryce Taylor (6'4" 205 lbs.). Taylor has been in Coach Ernie Kent's doghouse of late and hasn't played the past four games because of a knee injury, but you have to wonder how much he would have played anyway considering the fact that the Ducks have been playing better without him. Instead, Kent has been going with either sophomore Chamberlain Oguchi (6'5" 195 lbs.), or senior Brandon Lincoln (6'4" 195 lbs.). Oguchi has taken more three pointers than anyone else on the team, and when he's hot he really adds a dimension to the Duck attack. Lincoln is more of a penetrator and scorer than Oguchi and he has a better shooting percentage from behind the arc than Oguchi. Between the two of them, Lincoln averages more minutes, but like I said, if Oguchi gets hot, look out. It will be the job of Arron Afflalo, as well as Farmar and possibly Collison to shut down these two guys. They're not the best players on the Ducks, but they are the kind of players that can turn a game for their team if they are not given the proper respect.
Up front, the Ducks have recently started sophomore Roy Schafer (7'0" 235 lbs.) over junior Adam Zahn, (6'8" 225 lbs.), as Kent continues to tinker with his line-up to get ready for the PAC-10 Tournament. Neither player is really a focal point for their offense, and they do have different styles of play. Schafer likes to play with his back to the basket while Zahn will be just as likely to shoot a 3 than to post up low. Schafer had a very big game against the Trojans on Thursday, scoring 13 points and pulling down three boards in only 16 minutes. Zahn only played 2 minutes. Neither player is likely to strike fear into Coach Ben Howland, but like Oguchi and Lincoln, if you don't account for them, they can score in double figures and turn a game. Ryan Hollins, who appears to have found his game again after being benched to start the OSU game, will more than likely match-up against either of these two players. If he continues his play from Thursday, Hollins should get the better of a match-up with either player.
The other post players, the ones that could really cause the Bruins problems are sophomore Maarty Leunen (6'8" 215 lbs.), who is the Ducks' leading rebounder, and junior Ivan Johnson (6'8" 255 lbs.), who is quite simply a load on the low block. Both of these players can give the Bruins serious match-up problems, Leunen with his length and Johnson with his sheer size. This is the kind of match-up where you can see Luc Mbah a Moute getting into some foul problems early if he doesn't really focus. However, both Luc and Alfred Aboya present match-up problems of their own. Leunen and Johnson are simply not as athletic as either of the Bruins' Cameroonians. There is a very good chance that the outcome of the game will hinge on which set of post players has the stronger game. Oregon will also give a lot of minutes to Kent's son Jordan Kent (6'5" 205 lbs.), a junior who plays more because of his effort and leadership. He's a "glue" player that every team needs. He doesn't shoot well, but he rebounds bigger than his size and he plays good defense.
This game is in many ways similar to the Washington games except that Washington has superior talent. Oregon is much more talented than their record suggests, and the Bruins are catching them at a time when they are playing much better than they were the first time these teams met. Be that as it may, the Bruins are still the team that will dictate the outcome of this game. The fact that the Bruins played one of their better halves of the month, if not the year, in beating OSU Thursday is encouraging. But what is more encouraging is that they did it in the 2nd half after playing a poor first half. If it had been a case of a really good first half and then coasting in the second, then it would be more of a concern. With the strong second half, the Bruins now have something to build on. More importantly they will hopefully have learned the lesson that they are not good enough to simply just "show up" and win. When the Bruins play with the focus and effort (which leads to better execution) that they showed in Thursday's 2nd half, they are very tough to beat. But we all know how fleeting that can be.
So that brings us to Sunday. Oregon should come out fired up after their solid performance on Thursday. Plus, they have more than just pride to play for as a win on Sunday would put them in position to get a bye for the first-round game of the PAC-10 Tournament. Finally, the Ducks would love to make a statement to themselves as much as anyone else that they can win the conference tournament. They are, in many ways, playing like the Bruins did when coached by Steve Lavin; that is, they bring a great effort when they perceive their backs are up against the wall. With all the talk of Ernie Kent being all but fired at season's end and with the players reportedly now "playing for each other," the Ducks seem to have come to the conclusion that their backs are indeed against the wall.
The key will be early. Oregon still doesn't play well when forced to come form behind. If the Bruins can come out strong they may end the game early. If not, this is going to be a dogfight. An overtime game is not out of the question…