Midway through December, Oregon (8-2) is slowly starting to look like the team Dana Altman envisioned, before injuries hurt its rotation. With Jordan Bell and Dylan Ennis – two presumed starters – out with foot injuries to begin the season, the pace for this team to reflect its true potential has taken longer than expected.
With Bell back though – he returned against Boise State last Saturday – the Ducks are beginning to tease their true capability just prior to the opening of Pac-12 play. They’re scheduled to play in-state rival Oregon State in Corvallis on January 3rd.
“We can attack everybody from every different angle (now),” Dillon Brooks said. “It’s a great feeling for everyone to come back.”
What Bell provides for this team is invaluable. From his physicality in the paint to his improved mid-range jump shot that was showcased against UC Irvine Tuesday, Bell has made a visible impact on the floor.
It’s going to take him some more time to get fully up to speed, but there is a newfound confidence in the Oregon locker room since his return.
“He’s obviously our most physical player and so he really gives us a presence in there,” Altman said. “We looked like a different team tonight (against UC Irvine).”
Ball movement has gotten better, turnovers are starting to get cut down and the overall level of comfort on both sides of the ball appears to be increasing.
“We’re just really trying to make plays for our teammates and just get our assist –to-turnover ratio up,” Brooks said. “That just increases our chances of winning.”
Altman still believes “there’s a lot more there” regarding the improvement in ball movement and executing the offense, but was pleased with the progression against UC Irvine.
“I thought we took a big step and we were better.”
Before Ennis went down with an unexpected injury that would sideline him for the entire non-conference schedule, the hype for this team was high. Even after losing reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young to the NBA, there was little doubt that this roster had potential.
This team has rim protectors, veterans, highly touted freshman and most importantly, a coach that’s built a reputation of maximizing talent.
While other NCAA tournament teams are looking to build on their early season successes and failures before heading into conference play, Oregon is patiently waiting to get fully healthy. Ennis may now be the only player that is sidelined on Oregon’s bench, but he’s the one that everyone has been waiting for.
Assuming Ennis returns around his late December, early January target date – recently tweeted out “12-29-15” – there is a lot to be excited about if you’re Oregon. Conference play undoubtedly marks the toughest stretch of games, but for this team, it will be the first time they’ll truly get to find out what they have.
“We haven’t played as well as I think we should have been playing, so it’s important we finish the last three games here before we start conference strong and get better,” Altman said.
Follow Hayden Kim @HayDayKim