As Ducks evolve, eyes are on Dante to deliver
EUGENE — If Payton Pritchard had his way, he'd never come out of a basketball game.
The senior guard from West Linn played all 45 minutes and delivered clutch plays at both ends of the court in Oregon's dramatic win over Arizona last week.
He followed that up two days later by matching his career high with 29 points in a hard-fought 78-69 win over Arizona State, statistically mirroring the Sun Devils' Remy Martin for points, assists (six) and rebounds (three).
But the man who plays the most minutes in college basketball, the Oregon team leader making his 126th start, tested his coach's patience early in the second half against ASU. With the Ducks up 14, Pritchard dribbled across half-court and took a deep 3 that missed.
He was 6 of 8 from 3-point distance before that attempt, and has as much of a green light to shoot as anyone who's played for Dana Altman. But Altman sent a message — not only to Pritchard, but to his entire squad — by sitting his star guard for a couple minutes.
"I didn't like the (shot) he took to end the first half, and I didn't like that one," Altman said.
There was plenty the Ducks coach didn't like about the performance against Arizona State. Among his complaints: a lack of defensive intensity for significant stretches, some soft fouls on ASU's Martin, UO center Francis Okoro's foul trouble and — especially — nine missed free throws.
"You hit some free throws and it's a 15-, 16-point game (and) it looks a little different," Altman said.
Truth is, these Ducks will look a lot better in a month.
They didn't play with the consistency or killer instinct of a top-10 team last week, but found ways to beat a talented Arizona team and a game ASU squad.
It makes sense that Oregon, which climbed one spot to No. 8 in this week's polls, isn't playing top-10 level basketball these days.
The addition of N'Faly Dante is a big one, of course. But the 6-11 freshman is well behind his teammates in both conditioning and understanding defensive responsibilities.
"We can't run a lot of our things defensively because our combinations, roles aren't defined. Dante's catching up with some of our zone principles," Altman said after the win over ASU. "Defensively, we've got a long way to go. Offensively, execution-wise we've got a long way to go. It's a work in progress."
The Ducks were more cohesive before Dante's arrival because they had months of practice together and nine games to build chemistry. But if this team is to evolve from very good to elite, Dante will be a big part of the evolution.
Against the Sun Devils, Dante had five points, six boards, two assists and two turnovers, playing 18 minutes in a game that starting post Francis Okoro fouled out of with no points in 11 minutes. Seven games into his college career, Dante is averaging 7.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16 minutes.
Not game-changing numbers. But his one basket against ASU came midway through the second half, with the Sun Devils making a push. The visitors were within five when the Ducks went to Dante down low for a basket.
It was a glimpse of what Altman and his staff must believe Dante will be able to consistently deliver as he rounds into playing shape and learns the Ducks' systems. Give these Ducks, with their athleticism and versatility, a consistent post presence, and this could turn into something really special.
"Conditioning for (Dante) has got to improve," Altman said. "He had a couple bad turnovers in the first half because he was straight up and down. ... It's going to be a work in progress for a long time."
The long view makes sense in a year when there is no clear dominant force in college basketball. Yes, Gonzaga is a deserving No. 1 team. But, without Dante, the Ducks proved by taking the Zags to overtime that they are good enough to have a say come tournament time.
• Then there is the evolution of Chris Duarte. The national junior college player of the year last season, the 6-6 junior guard out of the Dominican Republic contributed a series of big baskets on his way to 20 points against Arizona State. He was 4 of 8 on 3-pointers, but also showed the ability to slash strong to the basket, giving the Ducks at least three perimeter players (along with Pritchard and Will Richardson) who can stress a defense from distance or by attacking the rim.
Altman said Duarte needs to step up his defending, specifically fighting through screens, but the coach wants better defending from most of his guys, and Duarte looks like a guy built to play tough defense.
n In addition to the recent addition of Dante, Altman's rotation has been altered by injuries, most recently to freshman forward C.J. Walker. Shakur Juiston's return after missing all five December games is significant. The 6-7 senior, a transfer from UNLV, is the Ducks' top rebounder (6.3) and brings an element of toughness and experience. Against ASU, he had 11 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.
Juiston wasn't sure how long he would be sidelined by the leg injury suffered Nov. 29 against North Carolina, so he is glad to be back for conference play. He says he learned things while watching from the bench that can help him now that he's back.
"It's like I never left. It feels good to be back playing basketball with my team," he said.
• At 3-1, the Ducks are second in a muddled Pac-12. Oregon State is 2-2 after Sunday's impressive rout of Arizona at Gill Coliseum.
Stanford (3-0) is the only unbeaten team in Pac-12 play, but hasn't played a conference road game (the Cardinal have played 12 of their 16 games at home to build their 14-2 record).
The Ducks and Beavers visit the Washington schools this week. Washington and Washington State share the Pac-12 basement at 1-3, but given that road teams are 6-14 in conference play, it's foolish to think the trip north will be a stroll for Oregon or Oregon State.
• Multnomah's Justin Martin broke his NAIA Division II scoring record on Saturday with 74 points in a 118-111 overtime win at Northwest Christian in Eugene.
The senior from Spokane was 15 for 22 from 3-point distance, with many of those from 8 or more feet beyond the arc. Martin scored 21 in overtime, when he was 10 for 11 from the foul line.
He wouldn't have had that chance if not for an unlikely rally in the final minute of regulation, including a tying 3-pointer from Jayden Ingram after a Martin attempt was blocked.
Martin was "shocked" when told in the handshake line he'd scored 74.
"I had no clue," he said. "I was just trying to make winning plays."
Saturday's win marked the first time MU has won at NCU, and it came one night after the Lions' first win at Corban.
The Lions (9-8) are only 2-5 in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, but have played five of those games on the road. They play their next seven at home, beginning Friday against Evergreen State and Saturday against Northwest.
• Holland "Boo Boo" Woods scored a career-high 30 points and hit a game-winner with two seconds left in a Saturday win for the Vikings at Montana State. After four in a row on the road, including a 85-70 Monday loss at Montana while missing starters Matt Hauser (ankle) and Sal Nuhu (illness), PSU (8-10, 2-4) returns to Viking Pavilion for 7 p.m. games Saturday against Idaho State and Monday against Weber State.
• Damon Stoudamire's Pacific Tigers visit Chiles Center for a 7 p.m. Thursday game against Terry Porter's Portland Pilots. Portland (9-9, 1-2 WCC) is coming off a 26-point loss at BYU. Stoudamire's Tigers are 14-5 and have won two of three close games to open WCC play, including a four-overtime battle over Saint Mary's.
Portland also is home Saturday against San Diego.
• This is a big week in the Willamette Valley for women's basketball, with third-ranked Stanford visiting Oregon on Thursday and Oregon State on Saturday. All three teams have been ranked in the top five much of the year, though the Ducks (to No. 6) and Beavers (to No. 8) both lost at (then unranked, now No. 18) Arizona State last weekend and both eked out tough wins at 21st-ranked Arizona.
Any question that Pac-12 women's basketball is something special? On Sunday, four of the five games came down to the final minute: Oregon's win at Arizona, ASU's win over OSU (the Beavers' first loss), No. 7 UCLA's 65-62 win at Colorado and Utah's 67-65 win over USC. Stanford spent its weekend with comfortable wins over rival California.
ASU's physical style has challenged the Oregon schools in recent years. The Ducks had 17 turnovers and only nine assists in Tempe and the Beavers had 15 turnovers and 12 assists. Oh, and Oregon (5-18) and Oregon State (2-20) struggled from 3-point range.
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