It is probably too early to hand Oregon the top seed in the Pac-12 tournament. But maybe by only a matter of weeks.
No. 16 Oregon is 6-0 in league play for the first time since 1925-26. These Ducks are alone in first place, and they are in even better shape than that. Oregon not only has beaten the two other top contenders, No. 7 Arizona and UCLA, in the previous two weeks, it also does not play either again in the regular season. No team has a better remaining schedule.
“Wow,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, whose powerful Stanford teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s never had that luxury.
“The way the league is shaking out right now, that is interesting. I think it is clear that UCLA, Arizona and Oregon, and not in that order, are the three that have separated themselves.”
Among those three, the only head-to-head games remaining to be played are between Arizona and UCLA. The first of two meetings is Thursday night in Tucson.
Twelve of the Ducks’ final 13 games are home-and-home series against the Washington schools, the Bay Area schools and the Rocky Mountain schools. The other is a home game against Oregon State.
Oregon is taking advantage from the blind good fortune of an unbalanced schedule that was created when Colorado and Utah joined the conference last year. With 12 teams in the league, a full round-robin schedule is unwieldy, so each season each school misses one pair of travel partners on the road and another pair at home. The Oregon schools do not make the road trip to Arizona this season, and the Los Angeles schools do not play in Oregon. It is a flip from 2011-12, when the Arizona schools did not make the Oregon trip, and the Oregon schools skipped Los Angeles.
“That’s an interesting quirk the way the thing shook out, but we are going to have to get used to it, and there is no point even worrying about it, because you are never going to know year-to-year” which team it is going to benefit, Montgomery said.
“This just puts more emphasis on the conference tournament, because not everybody plays the same teams in the league,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
The Ducks (17-2) got to this point with strong, unselfish play from a deep group that can push the ball, create mismatches in a motion offense and crash the boards. Oregon outrebounded UCLA by nine in a 76-67 victory last Saturday, when it turned 13 offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points. The Ducks handed Arizona its only defeat of the season, 70-66, on Jan. 10 in Eugene, and are 3-1 against Top 25 teams.
Freshman off guard Damyean Dotson from Houston Yates High leads the team with a 11.6-point scoring average, and four other players average at least 10, including freshman point guard Dominic Artis of Findlay Prep in suburban Las Vegas. Both guards have shown poise beyond their years, perhaps the result of playing at top high school programs. Small forward E.J. Singler is a driving force. Six Ducks have led their team in scoring, and five have led in rebounding.
“They have a real good combination of good players, depth, and experience that are coached really well,” Howland said. “Where they are really good is on the offensive end. They have a lot of little quick-hitting plays that they run.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman, a strong early candidate for coach of the year, likes the way his team is meshing but looked to defuse early praise by saying bluntly, “We haven’t accomplished anything yet.
“We have made outstanding progress, and there is still progress we can make. We are just off to a nice start. Until we get a lot farther into the season, it is really hard to get too excited.”
NEW FACES, SAME PLACE
Washington, the regular-season champion in two of the past four years, is in the first division again three weeks into the conference season, but this time the Huskies have done it with a different look. After the early departures of All-Pac-12 players Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten, coach Lorenzo Romar installed a new offense, the UCLA high-post set, and is relying on a more balanced approach led by wing C.J. Wilcox and paint-filler Aziz N’Diaye.
Wilcox, now a driver instead of simply a perimeter shooter, is leading the Pac-12 with a 21-point scoring average in league play and has made a league-high 18 threes in 40 attempts. N’Diaye is among leaders in field goal percentage and rebounds, and his presence helps the Huskies not only deny the inside but also clean up on the boards.
And some things never change. Washington, which has led the league in rebounding the past four seasons and six of the past seven, is among the leaders in rebounds and rebounding margin.
“It’s not like they don’t have players,” said Montgomery, whose Bears were outrebounded by 15 in a 62-47 home loss to the Huskies on Jan. 9. “They have two great wing shooters in (Scott) Suggs and Wilcox. They lose Ross, who was obviously more explosive and could put up big numbers, but they don’t drop much with Suggs and Wilcox.
“With Wroten, obviously, you had an extremely explosive guy who could get to the basket any time, but there were times when they were standing because he was a scoring and penetrating guard. They are not as physical, but it is hard for me to say that because they beat the dog out of us.”