Oregon got a good deal of national love last season, but mostly for the wrong reasons. There was the March attention when the Ducks’ surge into the Sweet 16 (and strong battle with eventual champ Louisville) made a mockery of the ridiculous 12-seed the Pac-12 tournament champs were given. They also, before the injury to point guard Dominic Artis, were generating buzz as an exciting, uptempo team with two blossoming freshmen who were combining with a couple key big-man transfers to shake up the expected league race.
But all of that glazed over the driving force behind Oregon’s surprising success last year: a stifling defense fueled both by strong turnover creation and extremely good work on the defensive glass. The main factor behind all of that -- one-year Eugene sensation Arsalan Kazemi -- has departed, and without him, fellow transfer Tony Woods, four-year contributor E.J. Singler and others, the Ducks are going to be a considerably different animal this season.
“I think last year, our experience was in our frontline, and our backcourt was really inexperienced,” coach Dana Altman said. “... Now the experience is in backcourt. Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis, Johnathan Loyd, those three have a lot of experience. We do have Ben Carter and Waverly Austin who played some for us, so they’ll have a little experience up front, [but] we’re going to be mixing in a lot of new guys.”
The Ducks did get out and run last season, averaging almost 69 possessions a game as both they and their opponents maintained average possession lengths of just 17 seconds (per KenPom.com), and they very well could do even more of that with the revamped roster this season. The three guards Altman mentioned will be supplemented by UNLV transfer Mike Moser, who thrived in a wide-open, flexible role with the Rebels two seasons ago before languishing last year due to injury and changed roster fit.
But none of those guys mentioned, or any of the other pieces Altman will be adding to the mix, will likely come close to the impact Kazemi had. The former Rice transfer was, in percentage terms, the best defensive rebounder in Division I last season, hauling in an incredible 29 percent of all opponent misses when he was on the floor. His presence not only closed out possessions, but also allowed Oregon’s perimeter guys to cheat, both on defense (where the Ducks generated steals on 12.1 percent of opponent possessions) and on their rebounding responsibilities, allowing for more leak-outs in transition.
Unprompted, both Dotson and Artis admitted that the perimeter players got lax at times on their rebounding responsibilities because of how much they trusted Kazemi on the glass. That’s going to have to change this year. This Ducks team is going to want to run, but they need to get the ball before they can do it.
“We’re going to be young up front with the exception of Mike,” Altman said. “We’ll have to see how our guys handle it. We got enough athleticism and we’ve got enough size to be a good rebounding team, but that game experience, you never know how somebody is going to respond.”
The other somewhat surprising aspect of the Ducks last season was that they were a very mediocre perimeter shooting team. That can happen when a couple of your key parts are freshmen and your junior guard isn’t a good shooter. Things were exacerbated when Artis missed a chunk of league play with an ankle injury and Loyd was overused.
It’s still somewhat unusual for a Dana Altman team, with the way his system spreads the floor, to be that poor from the arc. Four of Altman’s teams at Creighton shot at least 38 percent from three-point range, and the 2011-12 Ducks finished at 37.4 percent. The way this team may end up operating should provide a lot of open looks, at least in transition, and Altman is optimistic that the 3-ball that was mostly missing from Oregon’s arsenal last season will return.
“I think we will be a better perimeter shooting team than we were a year ago,” Altman said. “Traditionally, [my teams] have shot the ball really well. Part of it is experience. Part of it is improvement. Part of it is knowing what are good shots.”
With experience garnered last year, shot selection and offensive execution should be better. Artis said he’s really looking forward to running this team, and both he and Dotson repeatedly mentioned how athletic this Ducks squad will be compared to last season. If Altman can coax enough out of his frontcourt returnees, a couple of juco transfers and/or freshman Jordan Bell to go with what Moser should be able to add, this could end up being a pretty dangerous alternative to Arizona’s perceived position as the class of the conference.
It just might take some time before the rotation, and the exact style of play, becomes clear. Altman noted that the nonconference season would be interesting as he and his staff will likely sift through a bunch of different options and combinations. By league play, though, there should be a lot to like about how much improved this Oregon team could be. “I sure hope so. I sure hope we get better and better,” Altman said. “We sure did last year, and it was great to see those guards come along, and E.J. and Arsalan, those guys, really take hold of the team. I thought we really improved as the season went on. I hope we can have some of those same types of positive progressions this season.”