Winning in college basketball with a high-powered offense and mediocre defense is not unprecedented. Michigan rode its top-ranked efficiency offense to the national championship game last season despite having a defense that ranked 48th in the same category. Big East contender Creighton has a similar efficiency profile – No. 1 offense and No. 51 defense.
Those are extreme cases. Scoring more points per possession than any other team in the country is not a small achievement, but the teams that do it have a huge margin for error on the other end of the floor. Their defense doesn’t need to be exceptional, because opposing teams can’t stop them. Naturally, teams whose offenses aren’t as productive need to play better defense to win games. They need to get more stops, more frequently.
Oregon won its first 13 games of the season because it was scoring so effectively that it didn’t much matter if it was consistently getting stops. The Ducks had beaten Big East-contender Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois without two suspended rotation players, climbed to No. 10 in the Associated Press Poll and opened Pac-12 play on Jan. 2 as the prime threat to No. 1 Arizona in the league championship race.
The Ducks’ defense needed work, but if their offense – led by an explosive backcourt featuring Houston transfer Joseph Young, Detroit transfer Jason Calliste, senior Johnathan Loyd and promising underclassmen Damyeon Dotson and Dominic Artis – was nigh impossible to stop, did it really matter?
“Because we’re so good on offense we can be like, if (an opponent) scores we’re just like we’ll get it back with a bucket down here,” point guard Loyd said Wednesday.
That is a dangerous mindset for any basketball team to have. Oregon has learned why over the past two weeks. After beginning conference play with a wild two-point win at Utah, the Ducks have lost three consecutive games, to No. 21 Colorado, Cal and Stanford. The main culprit has been a defense so leaky that Oregon’s explosive offense hasn’t been able to bail it out of games.
In its 13-game win-streak, Oregon scored 1.19 points per possession and yielded 0.99. In the last three games, against tougher competition, the Ducks’ efficiency margin has dipped into negative territory. They are scoring 1.12 PPP and yielding 1.23.
"We've got to regroup," Oregon coach Dana Altman told reporters after Sunday’s two-point loss to Stanford at Matthew Knight Arena. "After having a pretty good six-week stretch, we had an awful eight days here."
One huge issue for the Ducks is rim protection. According to hoop-math.com, Oregon’s opponents are taking 38.6 percent of their shots at the rim and converting 59.1 percent of them, figures that rank 206th and 183rd in the country, respectively. Oregon is also blocking just 6.1 percent of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts during Pac-12 play, good for 10th in the conference. Of players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, only one, UNLV transfer forward Mike Moser, has posted a block percentage (3.4) that ranks in the nation’s top 400.
“We’re having trouble inside and teams are getting to the rim,” Altman said Sunday.
The Ducks are also struggling to defend the perimeter. Ball handlers running the pick-and-roll against Oregon have averaged 0.806 points per possession, according to Synergy Scouting data. Loyd, who has been matched up with pick-and-roll ball handlers more than twice as often as any other teammate, according to Synergy, has been especially bad as the initial on-ball defender in these situations, giving up an average of 0.936 points per possession. Synergy rates the Ducks’ defense against pick-and-roll ball handlers as “average” and Loyd’s as “below average.”
In the past three games, opposing teams’ lead guards have feasted on the Ducks’ lackluster perimeter defense. Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker combined for 50 points on 13-of-25 shooting; Cal’s Jordan Mathews and Justin Cobbs teamed for 52 on 16-of-27; and Stanford’s Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown produced 47 on 18-of-26. Here’s a clip of Randle driving to the rim for a layup off a high pick-and-roll.
The numbers back up the visual evidence: Oregon is not a great defensive team. Which is why assertions like the one CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb made in a recent column are hard to argue. “Dana Altman's club is not long inside or on ball screen defense,” Gottlieb wrote. “In fact they are a poor ball screen defensive team […].”
Even if the Ducks improve their defense, they will have a hard time competing for the Pac-12 championship. Arizona is the best team in the conference right now, and it doesn’t look like it’s about to slow down any time soon. Seven teams (Arizona, Cal, Colorado, No. 25 UCLA, Washington, Arizona State and Stanford) are ahead of Oregon in the league standings. The Ducks face a steep climb.
Contending in the Pac-12 is less important than making the NCAA Tournament, though, and Oregon remains well-positioned to earn an at-large bid. The Ducks are a six-seed in SI’s latest bracket watch, which was published after Oregon's latest loss.
There’s time yet for Oregon to make up some of the ground it has lost during its three-game losing streak, but it will need to improve defensively to do so. Last season, the Ducks finished third in the Pac-12 and pushed eventual national champion Louisville in an eight-point loss in the Sweet 16. They ranked 10th nationally in defensive efficiency. Oregon currently checks in at 149th.
The Ducks have work to do.