The Return Of The Duck: A New Era For Oregon Basketball

*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. For now, we’ll kick this off with Oregon – not a top 16 team, but one of our favorites here at Dime.*

For the first time since Aaron Brooks dropped No. 1 UCLA in 2007 with his buzzer-beater – causing a crowd rush that stressed the already-elderly foundation of McArthur Court – there’s a buzz in Eugene that extends beyond football season and Chip Kelly. There are reasons to suspect, though maybe not yet believe, in Oregon’s chances to surprise in the Pac-12 on the hardwood. The way coach Dana Altman constructed this team with his first-ever recruiting class, the Ducks resemble an experiment where the outcome this season will be either boom or bust. There are so many new parts, with nine of the 15 not starting last season as a Duck, who bring so much talent it should seemingly lead to the NCAA Tournament. But that’s on paper.

The NCAA Tournament is the upper limit for Oregon. While few expect the Ducks to revert to last year’s 7-11 Pac-12 record (though it was a nice surprise after off-season turmoil surrounding Ernie Kent‘s firing and Altman’s hiring) just how this team molds together is yet to be seen. Watching for E.J. Singler to continue his progress into the Pac-12’s upper echelon and following the second act of Tony Woods‘ career, where he could be UO’s best big man in a generation, make Oregon worth a follow.

After a year when depth was always an issue with a host of defections following Kent’s firing, any size would be promising. Oregon’s roster, however patchwork, is still deep and athletic. Most of it figures to come from recent roster additions, despite forward E.J. Singler (brother to Kyle) being the best lock to start. Jabari Brown was a top-10 high school prospect out of Oakland, Calif., last year who was the Ducks’ top scorer and passer in a five-game tour of Italy this summer. The hype around the 6-4 frosh rivals what Brooks and Malik Hairston had around these parts, and he has huge hands with rare hops and quickness.

[Related: Oregon’s Crazy New Basketball Court By Tinker Hatfield – Love it Or Hate It?]

Louisiana Tech transfer forward Olu Ashaolu was an All-WAC defender and has burnished his reputation in Eugene with an entertaining Twitter feed (@o_ash) and the yes-it’s-true story of him choosing UO in part because of a local Pancake House’s menu. And let’s not forget maybe the best athlete in Tony Woods — a Wake Forest transfer — whose 6-11 body inside, with his shot-blocking and offensive potential, could bring Oregon a big man it hasn’t had in at least a decade. Figure it this way: Oregon’s last big man of consequence was 6-9 Maarty Leunen, who helped lead UO to the Elite Eight but was more comfortable shooting from the outside.

Here is where Singler, UO’s Swiss Army Knife, has shined for three years. A proven winner who made the game-winning shot to win the College Basketball Invitational a year ago, Singler rebounds as well as any undersized, 6-6 forward and can find his shot with a quick release. Always facing the basket with the ball makes him one of Oregon’s top threats to find cutting teammates. Great shooting form allows him to be consistent, finishing with a Pac-10-best 85 percent free-throw shooting last year and 39 percent from three. With the newfound influx of post talent, like 6-7, 225-pound transfer Carlos Emory, transfer Tyrone Nared gets overlooked. He can be streaky offensively but has a knack for put-back dunks because he follows shots so well.

Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph – brother to Cory – is a huge upgrade handling the ball and creating off the dribble at shooting guard.

Team chemistry is the underlying question with what appears to be certainly a strong enough team on paper. Can all the incoming parts, all highly touted, fit together in Dana Altman’s run-first system that relies on cohesion on the fly? Brown will want the ball often, but Johnathan Loyd is a multi-talented point guard expected to guide the team after starting 16 games a year ago. Woods comes with big talent and a big reputation as much for his on-court hype as his notoriety for injuring his girlfriend, an offense that led to his leaving Winston-Salem. Many players do well with the ball in their hands, but Oregon’s success rides on the players’ acceptance of their roles.

[Related: Kyle Who? Oregon’s E.J. Singler Steps Out Of His Bro’s Shadow]

Brett Kingma is just a true freshman, but the Washington 4A Player of the Year is as pure a shooter as they come from deep. At 6-1, 175 he’s not imposing — but neither was catch-and-shoot specialist Tajuan Porter as a freshman, when he helped lead Oregon to an Elite Eight. I look for him to be a fan favorite and capture fans’ attention much like Porter did during his freshman and sophomore seasons, when the smallest dude on campus became arguably its biggest. Altman’s pressing, when run successfully, can get his players into matchup problems when they get the ball back. Kingma could take advantage by spotting up while everyone else scrambles back on defense.

Bottom line:
Oregon is a trendy pick to win the Pac-12, but we’ll know more about them in the first six weeks in games against Vanderbilt (on the road), UTEP, Nebraska (on the road) and Virginia. Oregon should be a top-five team in the Pac-12, inspiring cautious optimism about a first NCAA Tournament run since 2008. They have a big advantage in their first full season at Matthew Knight Arena. It’s a gorgeous, $200 million building that is built to channel the noise downward, much like at Mac Court. However, its first game, a turning-point win against USC, was also the final of last season with a crowd that made the place a madhouse. But Oregon fans have certainly warmed to Altman’s strategy and straightforward personality and they can be as loud as any fanbase. Whether Oregon can deliver a team that deserves such applause is yet to be seen.

What do you expect out of Oregon this season?

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