February 7, 2009

Hoops Preview: Arizona

Oregon has played the toughest schedule in the nation this year. Number one. It doesn't excuse their record but maybe it does put it in perspective a little. How have they gotten where they are? Missed point blank shots, missed free throws and mental lapses on defense. That's how a team with the kind of talent the Ducks have finds itself winless in conference play this deep into the season. Coming off Thursday's loss t the Sun Devils Oregon faces another big challenge in the Arizona Wildcats.

Like ASU who featured future NBA player James Harden, the 'Cats have an NBA payer on their roster. Forward Chase Budinger who could've opted to go pro last year but chose instead to return and wreak havoc on Pac 10 conference opponents. To date, he's averaging over 17 points and 6 rebounds a game. And here's the scary part about Arizona. He's the second best player on their team right now.

His running mate Jordan Hill has exploded onto the scene this year. The junior forward is averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 2 blocks a contest while shooting 55% from the field and dominating down on the block. He'll be Michael Dunigan and Josh Crittle's challenge on Saturday, Those two Ducks and Joevan Catron need to go to the glass hard or Hill could have a huge day. His experience against Oregon's youth mirrors the entire Duck squad this season.

As for the Ducks problems, Assistant Coach Kenny Payne described it this way the other day. "Layups, and free throws for the most part, over the last few games if you look at where we got the ball. We get it, 2 feet from the bucket, travel. We get it there again, miss. And it's not just one guy. It's Dunigan, Crittle, Catron, everyone for the most part has struggled. There is no offense that you can run that does something better than getting the ball right there."

So how do you combat that? How do you teach guys to finish stronger because for the most part, this is the first time these guys have ever played against competition every night that's this big, this strong, and this experienced. "Well, we work on it every day. We hit'em with pads, we block shots, we simulate what's going to happen with size and strength around you. We make it as tough as we can on the guys in practice every day. And they're getting better. But some of this you just have to go through. And when you've got 4, 5, 6 freshmen all going through it together, it's not just one guy who has to figure it out, they all do."

For a team that's skidded for this long, you'd think their confidence would be more shaken, but based on what you hear and what you see in practice, the Ducks appear to be in good shape as a group both physically and mentally. Announcer Dan Belluomini reported during Thursday's broadcast that the Duck practice he attended was upbeat, guys were working hard and if you watched them, you think this was a team winning more games than they were losing. That's a good sign. Because it shows they understand the spot they're in as a group.

Nobody thought the Ducks would be winless at this point in the conference schedule. Then again, there was no way with this much youth; they were going to make an NCAA tourney run either. Not with the toughest schedule in the entire nation.

So how does Oregon get a win on Saturday? Knock down shots they should be making around the bucket, play better help defense, and make free throws. It sounds easy, but when you're mostly freshmen playing against juniors and seniors, it's not as easy as it looks.

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