The No. 9 Oregon Ducks (14-3, 3-1 Pac-12) mostly handled Arizona State (10-6, 1-2 Pac-12) from start to finish on Saturday night at Matthew Knight Arena, but there were some lulls at points in the game that indicate that there’s still room to grow.
That said, the Ducks picked up two quality wins at home against the Arizona schools and have now won three straight following the dud in Boulder against Colorado.
“We really needed this one because Coach has been talking about this,” center Francis Okoro said. “He’s been talking about Arizona State and Arizona and we got two wins. So for us, it’s huge confidence going into next week.”
Pac-12 play is now in full swing, and each game teaches us more about this team — one that looks to have the making of a serious contender come March. Here are three takeaways from Saturday night’s win…
N’Faly Dante is still rounding into shape, but he’s the team’s best option at center
Dante shouldn’t be starting right now. His conditioning simply isn’t there yet. That said, though, it’s clear that he possesses more touch, skill and, perhaps most importantly, size, than Francis Okoro.
Ever since he debuted in mid-December, he’s flashed just about everything — outside of explosive athleticism, perhaps — that you could want from a modern-day center. In an offense so predicated on drives and set-ups from Payton Pritchard and Will Richardson, having a big man down low that can capitalize on those inevitable opportunities is crucial, and Dante is best suited to fill that role.
He’s been increasingly present in head coach Dana Altman’s closing lineups in tight games, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he gets the starting nod, and the lion’s share of the minutes that come with it.
Chris Duarte is the ultimate glue guy who doesn’t get talked about nearly enough
Where would this team be without Chris Duarte?
Typically, when that type of question is asked, the insinuation is that the answer is going to be somewhere from “not great” to “horrible”. I don’t think that’s the case at all here — the Ducks would still be a pretty darn good team without Duarte — but those aforementioned lulls have seemed to increasingly end with Duarte making some sort of play to get the team going.
He did it again on Saturday night, hitting a 3 to put the Ducks back up by nine after a quick 6-0 run by the Sun Devils got them to within six midway through the second half. That, coupled with his 6-foot-6 length competing on the perimeter on the defensive end, has vaulted Duarte into a role that suddenly appears to be crucial to the Ducks’ success.
If this is a bad game, look out
The Altman portion of the post-game press conference was, once again, mostly negative. He didn't like the way his team started the game defensively, he didn’t like the free-throw shooting, and he didn’t like Pritchard’s shot selection — so much so that a second-half heat check earned the senior point guard a two-minute stay on the bench.
He poured in 29 points on the night on 9-16 shooting, but that didn’t earn a single word from Altman. The message was clear: he still has to be better. Largely, that message extends to the entire team.
“We got a long way to go,” Altman said. “We can’t run a lot of our things defensively because our combinations, our roles, aren’t defined…it’s gonna be a work in progress for a long time. We got a lot of work to do.”
If that’s the case, this team could be flat-out scary come March. Shakur Juiston played well for the first time since returning from an injury suffered in the North Carolina game, Dante is still working into game shape, and Pritchard has stepped into the role of a legitimate go-to scoring option and leader as a senior.
The saying that Dana Altman’s teams always get better as the year progresses has quickly become the most nauseating cliche in Eugene. But it’s true. And a significant improvement upon a team that has already looked every bit the part of a top-10, perhaps top-5, team in the nation suggests that this team might just have a Final Four run in them.
One more thing: as much as everyone loves 5-star freshmen and future NBA lottery picks, experience wins in March. And the Ducks have a lot of it.