Experience makes difference for Ducks
As basketball fans, and humans, we are naturally attracted to shiny new things.
Thus it was fun to see James Wiseman, however briefly, and the Memphis band of soon-to-be professionals visit Moda Center last week to take on the Oregon Ducks as part of the Phil Knight Invitational.
Wiseman, you might know, is considered a potential No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. You might also be aware his appearance in Portland was in defiance of an NCAA decision that Wiseman is not eligible because his coach, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, paid to help his family move from Nashville to Memphis.
But it wasn't the fresh new faces that had my attention as the Ducks held off the Tigers in an entertaining, if sloppy, contest between teams tanked in the mid-teens. I was more interested in the familiar guys, such as reunited West Linn High teammates Payton Pritchard and Anthony Mathis.
Because as last Tuesday's 82-74 Oregon win again demonstrated, experience usually wins out in an age when there is regrettable little attention paid to players who take advantage of college ball to develop as players and as people instead of shooting for the dollars promised by professional basketball.
Pritchard was far from great in the game against Memphis. His six assists were matched by six turnovers, and he made only 4 of 11 shots. But his two made 3-pointers came down the stretch, dagger-type shots that allowed his Ducks to prevail.
Mathis, a graduate transfer who led New Mexico in scoring (14.4 points per game) and 3-point shooting (.416) last season, is off to a scorching start as a Duck. He made 4 of 5 threes against Memphis after hitting 9 of 11 in a win over Boise State. That kind of shooting takes pressure off Pritchard, who will make his 118th appearance for Oregon when the Ducks play host to Houston on Friday.
The arrival of Mathis, who teamed with Pritchard for three West Linn state titles, isn't the only reason Pritchard won't need to carry the Ducks every night. Sophomore guard Will Richardson, who had 10 points and six assists against Memphis, looks much more comfortable and confident in his second season in Eugene. And, unlike a year ago when true freshmen Bol Bol and Louis King were the five-star freshmen expected to lift the Ducks, this year's new crop is decidedly more seasoned.
Against Memphis, Shakur Juiston had 17 points and 10 rebounds. A 6-7 redshirt senior transfer, the double-double was nothing new for the Newark, New Jersey, native. In 2017-18, Juiston had 15 double-doubles while playing 33 games for UNLV. He played only eight games a year ago before a knee injury forced him to use a redshirt year.
The Ducks got a scare in the first half, when another of their newcomers, guard Chris Duarte, had to be helped off the court with a leg injury in the first half. It was the best news of the night for Oregon that the injury was only a bruised knee. He started in the next game, Sunday's defense-driven 67-47 win over Texas-Arlington that pushed the Ducks to 4-0.
Duarte, a native of the Dominican Republic, was the national junior college player of the year last season. The 6-6 guard looks like a competitor whose athleticism helps the Ducks at both ends of the court.
Hardaway noted after the game that the Ducks' experience was the difference, and it figures to make a difference for the talented UO freshmen who are part of what was a dubbed top-five recruiting class. Three of them played against Memphis, and the game was especially meaningful for Chandler Lawson.
A 6-8 forward, Lawson is a four-star recruit from Memphis who grew up playing with several members of the Tigers' ballyhooed freshman class. He contributed eight points and four rebounds against his hometown team.
"Fun playing against some of my teammates and some of my friends from back home," Lawson said, "because now I've got bragging rights."
The other freshmen who have seen action early in the season are Addison Patterson and C.J. Walker. Both have battled foul trouble in early games but are expected to be contributors. Patterson, a 6-6 guard from the Toronto area who reclassified from the class of 2020, was a four-star recruit. Walker, a 6-8 forward, was a five-star recruit from Sanford, Florida.
Ducks coach Dana Altman said he leaned on his most experienced players against Memphis but expects those freshmen to be significant contributors this season.
"As the season goes on and they get more comfortable, their talent will come through." Altman said.
The fourth freshman who could be a difference maker for the Ducks won't be eligible until mid-December because of a delay in NCAA paperwork.
N'Faly Dante is a 6-11 center originally from Mali who was among the top-rated class 2020 recruits but reclassified to 2019 so he could join the Ducks. Adding Dante's size and 230-pound body could set these Ducks up for another special season. At the very least, he will provide cover inside for a team whose only true inside force right now is 6-9 sophomore Francis Okoro.
Okoro missed Oregon's blowout win over Boise State on Nov. 9 after he was hit by a car, but he returned to contribute seven points, nine rebounds and a blocked shot against Memphis. He looks more confident and assertive than he was as a freshman, when his role as a defender alongside Kenny Wooten was significant in Oregon's surprising run to the Pac-12 tournament title and Sweet 16.
It's interesting (and natural) to wonder what the Ducks would be had Wooten and King decided to spend one more season in Eugene (Bol Bol always was going to be gone, though he would have benefited from more of Altman's coaching). Wooten (New York Knicks), King (Detroit Pistons) and Bol (Denver Nuggets) are in the NBA's G League.
But it appears Altman has again found plenty of talent. With the track record of he and his staff for getting his team to play its best basketball late in the season, Ducks fans should have high expectations for this team.
The coach seems to.
Altman noted that Mathis and Shakur Juiston, the other senior transfer, are especially driven because neither has played in the NCAA Tournament.
Altman used the phrase sense of urgency to describe Mathis and Juiston, and the same is true for Pritchard.
That urgency seems to be rubbing off on newcomers. It's very early, but this Ducks' team seems much more committed to defending and to sharing the basketball than they were for much of last season. They had 16 assists on 29 field goals against Memphis and are averaging 16 per game — five more than the 13 they averaged a season ago.
The challenging phase of the fall schedule begins this week for the Ducks. Houston, which tied Memphis atop the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, visits Matthew Knight Arena at 6 p.m. Friday. Then the Ducks fly to the Bahamas for an intriguing tournament. Seton Hall is the first opponent for the Ducks. The second opponent could be Gonzaga.
n The announced crowd for the Phil Knight Invitational was 7,246.
While that's not awful, it's hardly impressive considering both the Ducks and Oregon State were playing in Portland for the only time this season.
The game times were not ideal for a weeknight: 6 p.m. for Oregon-Memphis meant traffic was an issue, and 8:30 p.m. for Oregon State-Oklahoma meant a late night. And the event was up against a Trail Blazers game on television.
But, considering the Ducks are averaging 7,000 per game at Matt Knight and the Beavers drew 6,173 against Iowa State, you'd hope an event like PKI could attract at least 10,000.
PK Invitationals are planned for the Moda Center in 2020 and 2021, though dates and opponents for the Ducks and Beavers have not been announced.
n Oregon State's 77-69 loss to Oklahoma in the second game was a matter of the Sooners getting hot from 3-point range (11 for 22) and outscoring the Beavers 33-24 from behind the arc.
Encouraging signs for Beavers fans included the fight the team showed after falling behind by 20 points in the second half. And, of course, the play of Tres Tinkle. The senior came within one rebound in Saturday's win over Wyoming (16 points, nine boards) of starting the season with four double-doubles in a row. Against Oklahoma, Tinkle had 18 points and 10 rebounds and third-year starter Ethan Thompson had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Entering a Wednesday game at Gill Coliseum against UC Santa Barbara, Tinkle was averaging 21.5 points and 10 rebounds and four players were in double figures in points for the 3-1 Beavers.
n The state's other two Division I men's basketball programs get together Wednesday as Portland and Portland State clash for the 57th time. The Pilots visit the Viking Pavilion for an intriguing 7 p.m. battle.
The Vikings have won three in a row over the Pilots, including 87-78 last season. Portland leads the all-time series 36-20.
Both rosters have changed significantly since last season.
The Pilots carry a 3-1 record into the rivalry game after Tahirou Diabate and Malcom Porter made a series of big plays down the stretch in a 71-62 win over Maine on Saturday at the Chiles Center.
Third-year starter JoJo Walker is averaging a team-best 13.8 points per game. Despite struggling against his former Maine team (four points), graduate transfer Isaiah White is averaging 13.5 points. White scored 22 to help the Pilots be competitive in their only loss, 76-65 at USC.
The Vikings (1-2) will be happy to play at home after losses in challenging matchups at Indiana (85-74) and Hawai'i (83-75).
PSU hopes its arena can help with its shooting (.420 overall, .313 from 3-point distance). Grad transfer Matt Hauser (17.3) and junior guard Holland "Boo Boo" Woods (17.0) have carried a heavy scoring load for the Viks.
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