march madness - Page 3

Disappointment In L.A. Reminds Us Where We’ve Come

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Alex Shoemaker, Sports Editor

On Thursday night the 22-9 (13-5) Oregon men’s basketball team fell 63-62 to an inferior Colorado Buffaloes squad who limped its way into the Pac-12 Tournament losing three of their last by four games in blowouts.

The loss, for all intents and purposes, crushed any chance of Oregon’s NCAA Tournament hopes, leaving them to the verdict of a panel of voters who have likely seen less than a game’s worth of Ducks ‘ basketball all season long.

I’m not bashing the system; there’s no way to expect the tournament committee to watch every game of all 300+ D1 college basketball teams. With a poor strength of schedule, the Pac-12 being one of the worst major conferences in college basketball, only a few schools are likely to make it into the NCAA Tournament.

With this loss though, disappointment should not be the feeling that Ducks fans have. Let’s look back at how we got here…

The common belief is that coaches get three seasons to prove their merit. We’ve seen it before in programs across the country from football to basketball. Winning fixes everything.

Ernie Kent coached the Ducks for 13 seasons, amassing 235 wins (a school record) during his tenure. (Photo credit: Jeff Ross/Getty Images)

With the firing of Ernie Kent, Oregon alumni and coach for 13 seasons, most Ducks fans figured that former Oregon Athletic Director Mike Bellotti and the rest of the University of Oregon athletic department had some kind of plan in place for Kent’s eventual successor; that was not the case.

Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Brad Stevens of Butler were rumored as Kent’s successor. Could it really be that the Ducks could land a big-name coach? Could Oregon be a university giant the likes of Texas or Ohio State who dominate at both basketball and football?

As it is well known now, the Ducks did not land a nationally recognized coach. We got the guy from the University of Creighton who in his 16 seasons as head basketball coach had the Bluejays, who did not miss a post-season tournament in each of the last 13 seasons.

The name sounded familiar, but I had no idea who this Altman guy was. ESPN had me believing that this program was on the verge of a monumental hiring. Little did I know, that’s exactly what they did in hiring Altman.

Most people, myself included, have moved on from the Kent era and trust completely that Altman is the man to lead the program back into post-season relevance.

In his first season as head coach, the change in the program was felt immediately. The team, depleted from transfers, battled throughout their rebuilding season winning games on pure will.

With a losing record, Oregon somehow snuck a spot into CBI (College Basketball Invitational) emerging as champions with three straight wins over Weber State, Duquense and Boise State before defeating Altman’s former team in Creighton in a best-of-three finals matchup.

Only a season as head coach and Altman had nearly every Oregon fan believing in this program’s revival.

In season two of the Altman era, starting the season at just 11-5 (2-2) with all five of their losses coming by double digits, I did not believe that this team had any chance of making a run into the NCAA tournament. I mean, who in their right mind really believed this team could?

Brown played in just two games for the Ducks, averaging 6.0 points per game. (Photo credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

With everything stacked against them from their best player, Jabari Brown, and heralded savior of the program transferring just two games into his collegiate career, it looked like another year of mediocrity for Ducks basketball.

It took one of the strongest finishes in Oregon basketball history to change that, winning six of their final seven games entering the Pac-12 tournament. Getting to the NIT is in no way a disappointment. For the fans, this might actually be a best-case scenario.  

From the CBI a season ago and the NIT this season, signs of continued improvement are being shown. Remember, this is just year two into a completely new system.

Oregon now has the potential to host games that fans can go down the road to see with the potential for national recognition if they happen to make a run and reach the final four or deeper.

Earning multiple game experience will pay greater dividends than a first round knockout in a more prestigious tournament. With this team still in the rebuilding stages, experience is the best thing for long-term success.

Altman has a combined record of 43-27 as Oregon's head basketball coach, a much higher winning percentage than Kent. (Photo credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The next step is recruiting, which Altman is reportedly working on this weekend by travelling to recruits homes.

Altman has shown he can bring in big name recruits (Brown); the next step is to actually keep them here for more than two games. This postseason and offseason could be another transition from middle of the pack to top consistent competition for the conference championship.

With Altman, anything is possible. Let us hope the rumors of him considering a return back to Nebraska as just that, rumors. Haven’t we had enough scares these past two months of coaches leaving us already?

Defense: The Missing Ingredient For a Spot in the Sweet Sixteen

Many have heard the adage “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships” but is that the truth?  Though some question the validity of the statement, the Oregon Ducks have proven that for them, defense has been a crucial part in their 2013-14 late-season success.

The Ducks showcased both heart and skill in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament proving the seven months of hard work paid off.  However, none expected Oregon to take the route full of trials and tribulation in order to be a part of the Madness.

Obviously, every team wants to have a winning season and be a shoe-in for the tournament.  However, that is less commonly how it works.  Most teams face adversity at some point in the season.  The Ducks were one of these teams.

With 13 straight wins to open the pre-season, U of O looked exceptionally promising and expected to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

When the Ducks fell into a losing slump, the 17 Oregon players had to practice resiliency in order to keep their tournament seeding alive.

Oregon defense cut the opponents' average final score from 81 points at the beginning of the season to 71 points at the end of the season.

Oregon defense cut the opponents’ average final score from 81 points at the beginning of the season to 71 points at the end of the season.

The Ducks’ record reflected 13-0 but head coach Dana Altman was neither satisfied nor confident that pure offense would be enough.  He told his team they would have to start guarding opponents in order to continue getting the W.

Oregon was scoring enough points to win games.  Of their first 13 contests, 10 contained a final score of 80 points or more with four hitting 100+ points.

Although they started out strong, the Webfoots would swim circles part way through conference play.

The next eight out of 10 games resulted in losses for the Ducks.  The opposing team scored an average of 81 points versus the 76 points scored by Oregon.  This directly reflected the fact that six of the eight games were lost by a couple of possessions or less.

Now one must not be too quick to judge because many more statistics should be taken into consideration.  Whether playing at home or on the road, the personnel each team carries and the pace of the game can make a difference in points scored.  Remember, every team is different and will have different strengths and weaknesses when matching up.

Getting a "stop" on defense means preventing the other team from scoring. This can be a game-winning factor.

Getting a “stop” on defense means preventing the other team from scoring. This can be a game-winning factor.

While it is commendable to score an immense amount of points, games cannot be won by offense alone.  Likewise, the best way to beat a team is to keep them from scoring.

A team that loses 110-100 may be happier than a team that loses 60-50 because at least they scored 100 points.  By keeping a team from running up their points, it crushes their morale.

In the last 10 games the Ducks have played, they have held their opponents to an average of 71 points per game.  By limiting the total points scored, Oregon also increased their average total game points by three, to 79, thus winning nine games.  This helped solidify a seat for Oregon in the NCAA tournament.

Other keys to Oregon’s late season success would have to be Waverly Austin’s presence inside, the offensively-minded Joseph Young, Jason Calliste’s three point shooting and the Oregon native Mike Moser returning home.  Austin contributed to the Duck’s late-season wins such as the game against Arizona St. when he had five points and 10 boards. Joseph Young averaged 20 points per game while Jason Calliste’s average behind the arc shooting was a stunning 46 percent during the last half of the season.  Calliste was 5-9 against UCLA, 4-5 against Arizona and 3-4 against Oregon St. in three-point shooting.   Yet, one of the biggest boosts Oregon received this year was the return of Moser after playing for UCLA and UNVL. The 6’8″ forward was a force not to be reckoned with this year.

Good news for the Ducks — JaQuan Lyle has decided he will wear the Oregon name across his chest when suiting up for the 2014-15 season.  The 6-5, 215 lbs point guard from Huntington Prep will be a great asset to the Ducks because of his ability to handle the ball as well as being a coveted five-star shooting guard.  Hopefully Oregon can utilize this 41st ranked (out of ESPN’s top 100) Evansville, Ind. native on their journey to another NCAA appearance next year.

Help-side defense is a great example of the importance of a team having each others' back.

Help-side defense is a great example of the importance of a team having each others’ back.

In the first round against Brigham Young University, Oregon was able to hold the Cougars to just 68 points.  They accomplished this by out rebounding BYU 37-32 on top of poor FG shooting on BYU’s part.

In the second round against Wisconsin, the Ducks came out strong and lead at halftime 49-37.  The Badgers ruffled the Ducks’ defensive feathers in the second half, scoring 48 points.  Wisconsin converted 85 total points, which was above the opponent average in previous games.

Could this have been why Oregon lost?  There are many other factors that play into the final score of this season-ending game: scoring droughts, personal fouls and the multitude of Wisconsin fans in the stands to name a few.

It was no coincidence the Oregon jerseys said “Fighting Ducks” on the front.  Against the odds, honor was still brought to the University of Oregon through the never-ceasing effort by the men’s basketball team.  Not only did they fight throughout the season to make it to the top 32 teams, but they fought to the very end of their last game of the season.

Thank you, Ducks, for your dedication to getting the most out of your personnel – there is much of which to be proud.

Top photo by Steve Francis