Basketball Scouting Report: Oregon
This year, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings knows that he has the horses to do something special. All the starters from last year's team are back. The primary players in VU's rotation know what they need to do. It's all in the execution and the belief which informs it. There's something pure about that – there's mystery about the outcomes this team will create, but there's little mystery about the actual challenge staring this team in the face. We'll know by season's end if this team lives up to the full measure of its ability. The one-and-done knockout world of the NCAA Tournament is a cruel one, which means that a Final Four berth – while obviously everyone's dream in Nashville – isn't fully realistic. What should be a baseline expectation for this club? An appearance in the second weekend of the Dance – i.e., a Sweet Sixteen appearance – seems to be a more-than-fair marker for a club that has too much experience to be bounced out yet again on the first weekend of the tournament. The road to the Sweet Sixteen begins, then, against the Oregon Ducks, a trendy pick to surprise the rest of the Pac-12 and make a darkhorse run to the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed.
What will make tonight's game particularly interesting is the fact that Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli is out with sprained MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee. This void in the low post will give the other Commodores, particularly Steve Tchiengang, a chance to show that they can play extended minutes and successfully engage in mortal combat near the basket. The Ezeli injury gives the rest of the VU crew a chance to immediately establish the toughness that has been so manifestly lacking for this program in recent seasons. Being able to develop that hard and flinty edge is what will make the difference for the Dores… tonight against Oregon, and throughout the season to come.
The 2011 Ducks, under first-year coach Dana Altman, stood at 7-10 overall, 1-5 in the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) Conference on January 21. The hour grew late for a program that opened a new arena financed by Nike emperor and program godfather Phil Knight, only to stumble out of the gate. Altman, you might recall, embarrassed himself a few years ago – not in the worst way, mind you, but the memory was hardly a pleasant one – when he accepted the Arkansas job, only to reverse course just hours later and return to his longtime home at Creighton, where he led the Bluejays to multiple NCAA Tournaments from the Missouri Valley Conference. Altman was not stepping into an ideal situation in Eugene, Oregon. UO's previous head coach, Ernie Kent, did not leave the cupboard stocked. Morale in the locker room was poor, and the excitement generated by the team's run to the elite eight in the 2007 NCAA Tournament had completely evaporated. Oregon had not won an NCAA Tournament game since its 2007 dash to the St. Louis Regional Final against Florida, depriving Altman of the ability to recruit at a school on the rise. When the Ducks sputtered in the first leg of the Pac-10 season, it seemed as though Altman's decision to move to the Pacific Northwest was going to be a poor one.
Yet, just when the outlook appeared to be as dark as the soggy midwinter nights that are a natural feature of life in the Northwest, Altman lit a fire under his team. Undersized at most positions, Oregon competed well at the defensive end of the floor and turned its season around. The Ducks of Ernie Kent vintage were a racehorse basketball team – this was true in the breakthrough season of 2007, and it was also true when the Ducks reached the elite eight in 2002 as well under former stars Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson. Oregon tried to shoot teams out of the building within an up-tempo style that relied mostly on offensive skill and floor spacing. The 2011 Ducks had to win with grit and lunch-pail determination.
Here's a portrait that will capture your attention and put the 2011 season into perspective for Oregon, underscoring the need for last year's team to win with defense: In the Ducks' final 27 games of the season – 21 Pac-10 games (18 in the regular season, three in the conference tournament) and six games in the CBI Tournament – their ability to allow fewer than 65 points determined game outcomes more than 75 percent of the time. In 21 of those final 27 games (just over three-fourths of the time), Oregon either won when allowing fewer than 65 points or lost when giving up more than 65 points. When one realizes that the Ducks won seven out of their last nine games to make the Pac-10 Tournament semifinals and then capture the CBI championship, it's pretty plain that Altman squeezed the most out of his team by getting it to play hard-nosed defense. This profile, in many ways, represents exactly what Vanderbilt needs to become. Yes, Vanderbilt is far more talented than Oregon, but the notion of: A) maxing out; B) doing so with defense; and C) displaying a substantial amount of elbow grease is something the Commodores should very much aspire to. This opening game offers Stallings' students a chance to pass their first exam of the season.
Projected Starting Lineup
Center – Tyrone Nared – Senior, 6-8, 210 pounds; 2010-11 season averages: 5.1 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game.
Why must Oregon outfight its opponents to win? It is undersized. The Ducks have a pair of 6-11 centers in Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods and Chris Larson, but they're not polished enough at this point. Nared will be asked to bang bodies near the basket and become a physical presence for this team in the early part of the season. Altman hopes that the taller timber in his lineup can make progress by late December, when Pac-12 play begins.
Power Forward – Jeremy Jacob – Senior, 6-8, 226; 2010-11: 6.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg.
Jacob enters this season with a lingering knee injury, so Altman will probably be cautious with Jacob's minutes in this game. Oregon is a guard-heavy team, which means that any appreciable degree of frailty near the tin will leave the Ducks particularly vulnerable and exposed.
Small Forward– E.J. Singler – Junior, 6-6, 210; 2010-11: 11.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg
Singler, the younger brother of Duke star and NBA draftee Kyle Singler, hasn't delivered anything close to the level of production (or leadership, for that matter) that was expected of him when he came to Eugene. A big season for Oregon depends substantially on Singler's ability to be a more imposing presence in every aspect of competition. You know what "floor presence" looks like when you see it, and the Ducks are still waiting to get as much from this Singler sibling.
Shooting Guard– Jabari Brown – Freshman, 6-4, 200; 2010-11: N/A
This is the player Vanderbilt, particularly John Jenkins, will need to focus on tonight. Brown turned down Connecticut and Washington, among other schools, to play ball in Eugene. He has a developed body for a freshman and shows all signs of being an effective all-court player. The simple fact that Brown is starting on opening night as a freshman says a lot about Altman's expectations for him, though one could also make the point that Brown is starting because Oregon's talent level isn't overwhelming. Regardless of that bit of two-way speculation, the point is plain: A freshman is young enough to not know better; Brown is the Oregon starter who could go off in this game, so it's priority number one for Vanderbilt's defense to lock him down.
Point Guard – Garrett Sim – Senior, 6-2, 185; 2010-11: 8.2 ppg, .347 3-PT shooting percentage
Sim isn't devastatingly quick, and he's not quite a pure point guard; he was often placed in the shooting guard role last season. A veteran, Sim has a better chance than Oregon's other guards to adjust to his role and handle the ball on a regular basis, but he still represents a point of weakness for the Ducks.
We've already mentioned Larson and Woods, the two 6-11 post players who are not ready to crack the starting lineup. With Jeremy Jacob's knee injury, however, Altman will likely have to give at least 10 to 15 minutes to either Larson or Woods, possibly both. Oregon has to get production from at least one of its two backup centers if it wants to meet expectations this year and reach the top five in the Pac-12. More specifically, the Ducks need to be able to alter shots and protect the defensive backboard. The production needed from UO's post players is more at the defensive end of the floor.
The Ducks' backcourt is deep, so the bench players who will play on the perimeter for UO need to become a source of instant offense. Bruce Barron is a recruit who is supposed to become a core part of the program in the coming years. He could very well replace Sim before too long. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Barron has a strong body and a more explosive game than Sim could possibly hope to offer. With enough experience, Barron should gain more and more minutes, but in this opener, he's probably going to be behind the curve, not enough to make a substantial impact. Johnathan Loyd will also see an appreciable amount of minutes for the Ducks as a backcourt bench performer. He averaged 4.7 points last season but is expected to be a lot better in the 2011-2012 campaign. A final note about Oregon's backcourt is that it won't have the services of Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph. The former Golden Gopher – whose absence really hurt Tubby Smith's team in the Big Ten last season – won't be eligible until Dec. 10. The fact that Joseph was an experienced ballhandler would have given Oregon a great asset in this game; Vanderbilt will profit from his inability to suit up and play tonight.
At forward, Louisiana Tech transfer Olu Ashaolu takes his 14.2 points-per-game and 9.4 rebounds-per-game averages to the Pac-12. The big question for Ashaolu is if his numbers in the Western Athletic Conference can translate to a power conference. We might get a first glimpse of Ashaolu's chops in this tilt.
Keys to the Game
1) Attitude, attitude, attitude. This game, as the season opener, is significant not because of the need to bolster a resume. It's important because Vanderbilt basketball, loser of its last three NCAA Tournament games to double-digit seeds, needs to grow a spine. You recall the collapse in Knoxville against Tennessee. You recall the frustrating overtime loss at Florida. You recall the oh-so-predictable early exit in the Dance against Richmond, a result that was hardly surprising to a large portion of hoops pundits. The Dores can talk about high expectations, but meeting them is the only thing that matters, and nothing will change in Nashville until this team learns to be strong – strong with the ball, strong on the boards, strong on defense, strong in taking the ball to the rim, and most of all, strong between the ears. If this team doesn't cultivate toughness and a nasty attitude within six feet of the tin, the X-and-O prowess of Kevin Stallings won't matter much.
2) Time for a Brown-out. Vanderbilt's superior size near the basket means that the Dores will be particularly vulnerable only if they allow Oregon's Jabari Brown to have a big night. It's doubtful that Singler or UO's other starters will be able to light up Memorial Gym, but Brown is the wild card, the unknown, who could be just ignorant and crazy enough to shoot the cover off the ball. Vanderbilt's perimeter rotations and defensive exchanges need to be smooth in this game. As long as that ingredient is part of the mix, Oregon should have a very tough time scoring.
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