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EGGERS: Ducks coming together again

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon guard Joseph Young gives a whoop after his hoop versus Illinois.Transfer U. passed another test Saturday night, Dana Altman again proving one-and-done doesn't necessarily refer to college freshmen coming out to the NBA.

Oregon made it a 9-0 start, which, as Altman said after the Ducks' 71-64 victory over Illinois at the Moda Center, "beats the alternative."

Boy, does it, even though the alternative -- 8-1 -- wouldn't have been all that bad.

The Ducks, trailing 50-41 with 13 minutes left, outscored the Fighting Illini (9-2) 30-14 the rest of the way and showed they are capable of winning a game any which way.

Last time out was a racehorse 115-105 overtime win over Mississippi. Saturday night was a grind-it-out battle against a bigger Big Ten club that could wind up in the NCAA Tournament.

This appears to be the deepest, most athletic team in Altman's four years at Oregon, even more so than the 2012-13 Ducks who went 28-9 and made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Oregon entered the game ranked fourth nationally in scoring (91.4 points per game), having tallied at least 80 seven times. The Ducks didn't come close to that Saturday, in part because Illinois is a better defensive team than most they've faced this season.

John Groce ranks the Ducks among the top two or three offensive teams he has faced in his two years coaching at Illinois.

"They are really good offensively," Groce said. "They are very difficult to defend."

Oregon came in ranked fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage (.529), with seven of its eight rotation players shooting better than 50 percent, and 10th in 3-point percentage (.438).

"We wanted to guard the 3-point line, keep them off the foul line, limit them more than some teams have done," Groce said. "Until the end of the game, we did that well."

Oregon made only 4 of 15 3-point shots and was 9 for 12 at the foul line. But the Ducks made 25 of 37 2-point attempts to finish at .558 from the field.

Down nine points at the 13-minute mark, Altman switched from a man-to-man defense to zone and stuck with it the rest of the way. The Illini hardly got a good shot in the halfcourt the rest of the way.

"That's the best 10-minute segment of defense we've played this year," said Mike Moser, the Grant High grad who had 14 points and nine rebounds for the Ducks.

"Our energy level was much better," Altman said. "Our guys flew around (on defense). We got some hands on passes. We didn't let them get to rim. We contested their jump shots. We got some rebounds. The pendulum swung."

Senior point guard Johnathan Loyd, who is becoming a bit of a money man for the Ducks, scored their final six points, including a jumper with the shot clock running down and Oregon clinging to a 65-62 lead with 28 seconds left.

Loyd is the only true veteran for the Ducks, who lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago -- seniors E.J. Singler, Carlos Emory, Tony Woods and Arsalan Kazemi. At least, Loyd is the only guy who has been around the program for more than a year and change.

Altman has made a living off adding one- or two-season-eligible players since he came to Eugene. Before Kazemi, there were Devoe Joseph and Olu Ashaolu and Jay-R Strowbridge and Malcolm Armstead. The coach took on six transfers this season, including three of his top four scorers -- guards Joseph Young (Houston) and Jason Calliste (Detroit) and forward Moser (Nevada-Las Vegas).

Young, who had 14 points against Illinois, is a junior in eligibility. Calliste (seven points) and Moser are seniors. And then there is sophomore forward Elgin Cook (Northwest Florida State), who came off the bench to knock down 5 of 6 shots and score 12 points in 19 minutes.

It's remarkable how quickly Altman seems to blend new players into his system, and how easily they are able to find chemistry with their teammates. The good thing is, his players have college experience -- just not playing with the Ducks, who are ranked 11th and 15th in the two polls. Of the eight rotation players, there are five seniors, a junior and two sophomores. Not many top-20 teams can say that.

Like most good coaches, Altman usually finds fault in post-game analysis of his team's performance. After Saturday's game, he said he was disappointed with the Ducks' first 30 minutes.

"Our ball movement wasn't crisp," he said. "We didn't do a real good job on the boards. And defensively, we showed how far we have to go. We have a long way to go with our defensive effort.

"They dictated the tempo, which really disappointed me. We didn't have the energy. I'm not sure why. I didn't like our pace most of the night. We did some things (offensively) the first half I haven't seen in a practice or game, and none of them worked. We weren't sharp.

"To be able to turn it up a notch and go is a great characteristic to have. But over the long haul, if you depend on that, it's going to bite you very often."

The Ducks are blessed with depth and shooting ability on the perimeter but are thin in the middle. An opponent stocked with good bigs could give them trouble. Altman starts three guards alongside Moser, the team's best rebounder, and 6-11, 255-pound senior Waverly Austin, who played only 13 minutes Saturday night.

Ben Carter, a 6-8 sophomore, joins on for Oregon's next game against Cal Irvine Tuesday night, as does guard Dominic Artis, both having served their nine-game NCAA suspensions. Artis was a starter as a freshman last season, but he'll come back in a reserve role, at least to begin with.

"D.A. is a very talented young man, but we're not going to start him," Altman said. "Both of those guys are going to play for us. They're going to be a big part of the team. We're only nine games into it. Nothing is set in stone. We'll probably be going into January still figuring out roles. A lot of good teams do that."

The Ducks are a good team. Whether they can reach greatness is yet to be determined. Altman sounds as if he is guarding against his players getting a little too full of themselves.

"We're off to a nice start," he said. "I've been very pleased with the way the guys have banded together and have some good chemistry going. When we move the ball and make shots for each other, we're fun to watch.

"We're headed in the right direction. I just think we have a long way to go, and I hope I get the whole team to learn that. Sometimes you have to lose to get their attention."

There was a nice crowd of 10,043 on hand, and Altman said he wants to play a game at the Moda Center every other year as a reward to Metro-area fans. "Portland is very important to us," he said.

For now, Altman will concern himself with making the two-hour drive to Matt Knight Arena worth it.

"We're just scratching the surface with this team," he said. "There is a lot of potential there that we haven't begun to tap. I'll be really disappointed if, by Jan. 14, we're not a lot better. And if by Feb. 14, we're not a lot better than that. And if by March 14, we're not a lot better than that."

If all of that happens, it could be a season for the ages at Transfer U.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers