Drukarev: Winter sports aren’t all doom and gloom

In the past few days, several of my Emerald colleagues have bemoaned the lack of excitement the University’s winter sports are expected to provide. Early indications point to the men’s basketball team being no better than mediocre — in perhaps the nation’s one of the more mediocre conference. Meanwhile, the women’s team has lost six of their past nine games, and seems likely to finish short of the postseason yet again.

It’s all a far cry from the fall, when the football team was the toast of the nation, and the volleyball team surged to a top-15 ranking before getting beat in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Lest anyone think otherwise, however, there are reasons to pay attention to University sports during the winter term. As I see it, there are four solid reasons why the men and women’s basketball season shouldn’t be completely ignored.

Liz Brenner’s emergence as one of the best, if not the best, athlete on campus.

“Emergence” isn’t the proper word here — Brenner, a freshman from Jesuit High School in Portland, was one of the most prolific high school athletes in state history. She starred in volleyball, track, softball and basketball during her high school career. Although she had offers from multiple colleges to play multiple sports, Brenner ultimately chose volleyball but kept open the option to be a multi-sport athlete in college. And after a brilliant freshman campaign with the Ducks volleyball team, Brenner joined the basketball team mid-season. It didn’t take long for her to become acclimated to the new sport. Brenner has played in seven games with the Ducks, and has started at forward in four of them. Her stats don’t jump off the page, but the pace at which she’s acclimated to a new sport is remarkable.

The high-fliers on the men’s basketball team

There may not be many future NBA players on Oregon’s men’s basketball team, but there are several that could hold their own in a dunk contest, specifically forward Olu Ashaolu and Tyrone Nared. Oregon fans got a taste of their leaping prowess during Matt Knight Madness a few months back. If you weren’t there, maybe this video of Ashaolu throwing down in a November game against Nebraska will spark your memory. Or perhaps this dunk by Nared in last year’s USC game will ring a bell. Heck, even 6-foot-2 senior guard Garrett Sim is a capable dunker — he won the Matt Knight Madness dunk contest. And I haven’t even mentioned 6-foot-11 Wake Forest transfer Tony Woods, who might be the team’s most powerful dunker. @@[email protected]@

The Pac-12 is so bad, the men’s team might actually win the thing

Yes, an Oregon team that lost to mediocre Cal and Washington by a combined 33 points should be right in the Pac-12 mix for the duration of the season. Since the conference will likely produce no more than two bids for the NCAA Tournament, an at-large berth seems unlikely. But it wouldn’t be a shock if Oregon finished in the top-four in the conference, and earned a favorable draw in the Pac-12 Tournament. With veterans like Sim and E.J. Singler, one of the conference’s top big men in Woods and a savvy coach in Altman, Oregon should continue to improve as the season progresses. The same can’t be said about some of the league’s other teams, which should result in some fun — and relevant — basketball at Matthew Knight Arena as the winter turns to spring.

The uncertainty of the Paul Westhead era

He’s still sharp as a tack and has forgotten more about the game of basketball than I’ll ever know. His last two recruiting classes have shown promise — sophomores Ariel Thomas, Deanna Weaver and Danielle Love are quality Pac-12 players, and freshmen Jordan Loera and Lexi Petersen have shown promise. And it’s not Westhead’s fault that his star players — namely Nia Jackson and Amanda Johnson — have struggled to stay healthy. Yet after beating Arizona last night, Oregon is still only 6-17 in Pac-12 play over the past two seasons. If they continue to lose more conference games than they win, questions about Westhead’s future will certainly be raised. In the midst of Oregon’s struggles, it’s easy to forget that Westhead, 72, is a coaching legend. He’s the only coach to ever win NBA and WNBA titles. He captivated the nation in the late 1980’s with the Loyola Marymount men’s program. His teams and style of play are unique, if not always successful, and worth watching. @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@

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