When pundits discuss how the Pac-10 lost so much talent from last season, they tend to mostly discuss UCLA, Stanford and Washington State. But The Ducks lost three experienced and talented seniors – Malik Hairston, Bryce Taylor and Maarty Leunen – and they are experiencing a more dramatic drop-off this season than probably any of their conference counterparts.
Oregon is 6-7 on the season, and has looked even pretty shaky doing that. On Friday, they got blown out by USC, 83-62, in a typical fashion for a team lacking experience; They were even at halftime and then lost energy and focus in the second half.
It's what happens when you have four new starters, and the remaining starter isn't exactly a calming force.
Tajuan Porter (5-6, 150), the junior, is the holdover, and Porter, like he has in the past two seasons, can play you into a game quickly, or play you out of one just as quickly. He can be out of control and make very poor decisions, particularly in his shot selection, and he hasn't changed that much as a junior. He's the team's leading scorer, at 14 points per game, but he has more turnovers (30) than assists (27) for the season and he's shooting 36% from three while taking an average of 7 per game. He's had just two games this season where he's made four or more three-pointers, while he's had seven games that he's attempted six or more. One of the most interesting endeavors was when Oregon head coach Ernie Kent experimented with Porter as a point guard, theorizing that point guard responsibilities might rein him in, but it didn't work. In years past, though, Porter was a force the Ducks could manage better, because they had guys like Hairston or Taylor, or Aaron Brooks, to counter his penchant for being wild. But this year he's the veteran, and should be more of the stabilizing force, and that's just not who he is.
With four new starters, three of them freshmen, and six new players on the roster overall, combining that inexperience with Porter has been, well, interesting.
To bring some stability to the floor, freshman point guard Garrett Sim (6-1, 175) is a starter and playing a solid 26 minutes a game. Sim is easily the most stabilizing of backcourt players for Oregon; in high school he was a heady, team-oriented player. He still is, but there are, of course, some bumps in the road as a freshman. He's averaging 10 points per game, while shooting a very impressive 42% from three, with a solid 1.38 assist-to-turnover ratio. With the Ducks needing more scoring this season, he's stepped up some in that department lately and is very capable of going off – scoring 28 points in a game against Utah in which he shot 5 of 6 from three. He's an average athlete, who uses cleverness to make up for a lack of great quickness.
The starting small forward is sophomore LeKendric Longmire (6-5, 200), who was a back-up last season and showing flashes of talent this season, albeit inconsistently. Longmire has had spurts where he looks like the best player on the floor for the Ducks, but then he's also looked pretty sloppy and ineffectual at times. He's mostly a slasher type, even though he'll make a three-pointer (54%) if you leave him open. He's prone to bad decisions with the ball.
In the frontcourt, the Ducks are dealing with some considerable inconsistency, which is to be expected from new starters. Junior power forward Joevan Catron (6-6, 235) can be a beast at times, and started off the season looking that way. But he's fallen into some spotty play in the last month. On the season he's averaging 9 points and is the team's best rebounder at 7.5 per game. He's a good interior passer, but he also is prone to turnovers. He plays very physically, and had a low center of gravity, making him capable of knocking taller players out of position.
The center spot is mostly manned by freshman Michael Dunigan (6-9, 255), who is very talented, but still at the beginning of his freshman learning curve. Against USC, veteran Trojan big man Taj Gibson seemed to overwhelm Dunigan in the second half, and Dunigan looked shell-shocked. Again, Dunigan is a very talented player – probably a future pro -- but it appears he has a ways to go in learning how to sustain effort and focus at the high D-1 level. Well put-together, Dunigan finishes well inside, averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds per game, and defensively he's strong but inexperienced. That combination has tended to get him in foul trouble often.
Oregon isn't quite as frenetic as they used to be, but Kent has a decent bench and still likes to shuttle in subs to keep the Ducks playing at a quick pace. Senior Churchill Odia (6-6, 210), who many thought would be a starter this year, gets the most minutes off the bench. Odia has had a curious career in Eugene, at times looking very good, and then at others very disappointing. They use him sometimes at power forward to go with a smaller, quicker line-up. Back-up sophomore point guard Kamyron Brown (6-1, 170) was also projected to start this year, but Sim overtook him, mostly because on a team that needs stability, Brown can be out-of-control himself. He uncharacteristically got hot from the outside against USC Friday, making 3 of 4 three-pointers; he had made only three all season previously. Brown is strong for his size and pretty quick.
Freshmen Matthew Humphrey (6-5, 185) and Josh Crittle (6-8, 260), who came from the same high school in Illinois, also get spot minutes off the bench. Crittle is a true low-post guy, who comes in and gives out fouls. Humphrey had a rep as a very good shooter in high school, and he's looking for his shot when he's on the floor. His minutes have diminished as another freshman, Drew Wiley (6-7, 200), has seen his minutes increase some (to about 10 a game), in the last couple of weeks. Wiley, also a good shooter, isn't afraid himself to put it up, sometimes without conscience.
Offensively, the Ducks still employ that spread approach, trying to bring out defenders from the paint to make room for penetration. It makes for mostly one-on-one play, and a great deal of turnovers (15.8 per game) and not many assists (13.4).
The Ducks score at a pretty good clip, 74.8 points per game, but it's mostly because, in their inimitable style, they take many shots. They are dead last among Pac-10 schools in field goal percentage, at 41.8%.
What has really hurt the Ducks, while they're running up and down and taking quick shots, is a very lackluster and porous defense. Their defensive stats are staggering – giving up an average of 76 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot 46% from the floor and 34% from three.
The one thing you can say for the Duck defense, though, is they force a lot of steals. Running around and gambling on defense, they give up many easy baskets, but they do get their share of steals, getting 9.8 per game.
The Ducks have always tried to out-score you, but they did it with some guys who could occasionally get a stop, too. Now, they're trying to do it without any real defensive force, especially in transition. Against USC in the second half, it looked like a Trojan lay-up drill.
So, for Kent, it's been either dedicate more guys to getting back early on defense and trying to bolster a bad transition defense, or get just one shot on just about every possession. Oregon is allowing opponents to rebound a huge 39 boards per game.
UCLA is a bad match-up all the way around for the Ducks. Not only is it a contrast in philosophy, with Kent playing a speed, error-prone game and Howland a disciplined, conservative one, but it's one that really hurts Oregon when they're playing with so much inexperience on the floor. To fuel the fire, UCLA now has become one of the best transition teams around, which directly exploits Oregon's biggest weakness, transition D.
The one thing the Ducks do have going for them is the brutal homecourt advantage at Mac Court. In fact, there were only 7,000 fans or so in attendance Friday against USC, but you can expect a much bigger and more boisterous crowd against UCLA with more Oregon students now having returned for the start of the semester Monday. That should be the one element that will keep this one from being a complete blow-out. Perhaps the Oregon freshmen will be a bit more focused after watching USC run over them in the second half Friday.