Four days ago, Dana Altman did a fine impression of someone who stockpiles non-perishables for a coming apocalypse. Oregon wasn’t shuffling its feet defensively. Teams were going to see that. The Ducks’ physicality on the glass wasn’t satisfactory. A long way to go there.
And then, after improving to 12-0 with a 21-point win over Morgan State, Altman fielded a question regarding what Oregon had to improve on before Pac-12 play began. It was a harmless query. Altman winced like someone jammed bamboo shoots under his fingernails.
“That’s a long list,” the coach of the team sitting at No. 10 in the AP poll told the assembled media in Eugene. “Every facet of our game.”
This was standard self-flagellation after a sloppy second half that soured the mood, a dose of dissatisfaction that was overcooked. But a measured amount of curiosity about Oregon is not. Conference play begins Thursday with a weekend swing through Utah and Colorado that precipitated a pair of double-digit losses last season and will provide an appraisal of the cohesiveness of a transfer-laden squad off to the school’s best start in six seasons.
Nine newcomers have played for the Ducks this year. The top three scorers played elsewhere a year ago. Any adjustment period appeared to be a blink given the 90.8 points per game that lead the nation and the No. 8 ranking in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency stats, the latter figure legitimizing the former as more than just a product of run and gun.
There’s plenty of coherence here, but per those kenpom.com ratings, the best team Oregon has faced thus far is Illinois, which is No. 52 nationally. Utah, which hosts the Ducks on Thursday, rates No. 70 but does average 87.4 points per game. Colorado is at No. 29 in the kenpom.com rankings, just seven spots behind the Ducks.
Altman’s memory is long enough to remember a pair of double-digit losses on this swing in 2012-13. The infusion of new bodies suggests the past should carry little relevance into the weekend. But then new bodies mean players who haven’t experienced this particular conference grind before, especially one that begins with five of seven league games on the road. It’s a dynamic that is equal parts opportunity and challenge.
If Oregon can go on the road and pair that potent offense with even slightly more frequent and reliable stops – the Ducks are 93rd in adjusted defensive efficiency – this weekend can demonstrate the gap between Arizona and the rest of the Pac- 12 isn’t miles wide.
“Every coach wants to be farther along,” Altman said on Dec. 29. “I try to stay realistic. Defensively, I thought we’d be farther along. I thought there would be a greater sense of urgency on the defensive end than what there is now. Offensively, we’re about where I thought we’d be. Defensively, really, is the only place we’re way behind where thought we’d be. That’s as much my fault as it theirs. Haven’t demanded it, haven’t gotten them in the right spots.” Typical coach protests aside, the Ducks are in fine position as conference play begins. The first weekend offers both a challenge to that and a chance to prove things are even better than they seem.