Oregon goes 'O-fer'
What? You expected Oregon, after losing seven of its top eight players from last season's Final Four team, was simply going to press a "Re-load" button?
Wasn't going to happen. Dana Altman knew it, too. Disappointed as the coach was with the Ducks' performance in a 71-63 loss to Connecticut Thursday at Moda Center, he knew there would be some step-back after the magical 2016-17 campaign.
Oregon misses Dillon Brooks' leadership and Tyler Dorsey's élan and the inside presence and rim protection of Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher. All of their scoring ability, too.
Payton Pritchard is the lone holdover from the rotation that carried the Ducks to a 33-6 record and the Pac-12 championship, and Altman wasn't going to wave a wand and create instant synergy.
Oregon shot poorly (.333, including 5 for 24 from 3-point range), had 30 personal fouls and 17 turnovers and still took UConn to the final minute in the Thanksgiving Night opener for both schools in the PK80 Invitational.
Kevin Ollie's Huskies, 16-17 a year ago, aren't all that, either. But they're quick and work at the defensive and did enough intangibles to secure the victory.
"We track EGBs — energy-generating behavior," Ollie said. "Taking charges. Keeping (the opponent) off the offensive boards. Cutting off 3's. Those are things that don't show up on the stat sheet. But when we go back to the hotel, we'll show that to our guys all night."
Altman didn't wait that long to poll his players, going down the line in the locker room afterward, asking each one if he was pleased with his individual performance.
"We went O-fer," the UO coach said. "Nobody stepped up to say, 'Coach, I did what I should do to help our team win.' To a man, I'm not sure anybody felt like they played well."
Oregon dished out only seven assists (the Huskies had but four themselves), and Altman worried his players had been getting a little full of themselves.
"I told our guys to stay off Twitter," he said. "Everybody saying how talented we are. We don't need that."
The Ducks had mopped up on their first four opponents, all in Eugene against lesser lights from conferences you've heard little about. UConn and the ESPN-televised game in the arena where the Trail Blazers play was a different level.
"Our first time under the bright lights, with a little pressure, and we sure didn't handle it well," Altman said. "I was disappointed from the get-go. I didn't like our enthusiasm. We didn't execute. Took a lot of bad 3's. It was not a good effort."
Pritchard, the sophomore point guard from West Linn, had 14 points but was only 4 for 13 from the field — 2 for 9 on 3-pointers — and had one assist with three turnovers in 35 minutes.
Mikyle McIntosh, a 6-7, 240-pound graduate transfer from Illinois State, had 10 points and 11 rebounds, and 6-9 Paul White, who sat out last season after transferring from Georgetown, scored 12 points. But the Ducks found little rhythm at the offensive end.
"Our ball movement was awful," Altman said, "everybody wanting to make a play for themselves. It was not good."
Which doesn't mean Oregon won't be good this season. I don't see the Ducks as being Final Four good, but they're certainly upper half of the Pac-12 good, and probably NCAA Tournament good.
White, McIntosh and another graduate transfer, 6-4 guard Elijah Brown from New Mexico, will help Pritchard provide stability and veteran leadership.
Three of the four freshmen are in the rotation, and 6-7 small forward Troy Brown is a starter and the most ballyhooed of the group. The Las Vegas native struggled Thursday night, getting into early foul trouble and finishing with six points on 2-for-6 shooting — 0 for 3 on treys — and eight rebounds. Brown is athletic, though, and he'll be an important factor as the season goes on.
Southpaw Victor Bailey Jr. — a 6-4 guard out of Austin, Texas, and the son of former NFL wide receiver Victor Bailey — missed all six of his shots against UConn, but he's another player with potential to be of immediate help.
The best rookie Thursday night was Kenny Wooten, a springy-legged 6-9 forward from Manteca, California, who made 3 of 4 shots and contributed six points and nine rebounds in only 19 minutes.
The Ducks took 10 shots from beyond the arc in the second half and missed them all.
"Our point of emphasis was to cut off the 3-point line," Ollie said. "That was a big key for us.
"Dana is a wonderful coach. If you let him get in a rhythm, he'll see the mismatches and go right to them. To keep him off-balance, I wanted to go to zone at times, to play some pressure defense, to mix things up a little bit."
Altman allowed that UConn's defensive pressure was "OK," but felt the Ducks' problems were more about the Ducks.
"We never made the defense shift," he said. "We were just in a hurry. Guys trying to make a play for themselves every time they touched it. I wish I could say something else, but we were a poorly coached team. There's no way I can say we played a good game."
Asked about his message to the UO players afterward, Altman managed a grin.
"I don't know if anybody listens to me or not," he said. "I'm going to keep talking.
"This is a totally different team (last season). I don't know how they'll respond. Every team takes on a different personality. I don't know what type of personality this team will take on. But I know we'll play with more energy."
Altman knows the Ducks have some holes they didn't have a year ago. Still, he expects more than what the Ducks put on the floor Thursday night.
"We're not a real big team," he said. "We're not a blazing fast team. But collectively, we're pretty good if everybody plays to his ability.
"We have to play better. It's just a matter of how the guys respond. I didn't have our team prepared to go on the road to play tonight."
Even though the trip was only 110 miles north from Eugene. And the arena was packed with enough Duck fans to make it a de facto home game.
Growing pains hurt, but only for a while. Then they go away. That's what will happen with the new-look Ducks, who should have plenty of "pretty" ahead to make them forget some ugliness on a Thanksgiving evening at Moda.