March 18, 2008

Oregon has the skills to make a run

A lot of prognosticators have Oregon losing in the first round to the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. Everyone has Memphis beating the winner of Oregon/Mississippi State on Sunday. If you had to bet in Vegas, that's probably what you'd do. But Coach Ernie Kent and the Ducks have a way of rising up in tournaments over the years and this year they have the skills to do the same. Assuming the skill players show up. Porter, Leunen, Taylor and Malik need to shoot the ball well if Oregon's going to win against the Bulldogs. Catron and Hairston are probably the most important on the defensive end.

Oregon will face a very strong defensive Bulldog team. The short version of the match up looks like an Oregon team that likes to shoot the three-pointer against a defense that's anchored by shot blocker Jarvis Varnado. A few different things can happen at that end of the floor. The Ducks can attack Varnado with Leunen and the slashing of Bryce Taylor and try to get him in foul trouble. The guards and Malik can back up and shoot the three if it's presented to them. And they can get by the first wave and shoot the mid-range jumper away from the shot blocker. What they shouldn't do is any one of those things alone.

Look for Kent to take Leunen away from the basket and force Varnado to come and try to defend him beyond the three-point stripe. If he Varnado doesn't defend him out there it's on Leunen to knock down enough threes to make them pay and open things up underneath. If Leunen knocks down long jumpers, Oregon could be in great shape. If he doesn't, Oregon might wind up playing right into the Bulldogs' hands on that end.

Why? Because the Bulldogs are a great rebounding team, Tenth in the nation with 44 boards a game. The Ducks are below average, 186th in the nation, snagging just over 37. Again, Oregon can neutralize that by hitting shots or getting to the free throw line and making them. One of the big keys to this game is that Oregon needs to make a high percentage of their shots.

On the Bulldogs' side, they know Oregon likes to shoot the three and their strategy might be to force Oregon to put it on the floor and not get clean catch and shoot looks. They can do this because they know they've got Varnado back there to defend the bucket and force the Ducks to pull up for the mid-range jumper.

On the defensive side Oregon has to contend with Jamont Gordon. A 6' 4" forward who plays like what he is, a Bulldog, averaging over 17 a game and over six boards. He's quick enough to take you off the dribble, and strong enough to post up the defender. His running mate is 6' 8" Charles Rhodes who goes for 17 and seven a night himself. He might be Oregon's biggest match up problem inside on the defensive end and will probably draw Hairston in the man-to-man. As you watch him play you'll see what looks like Joevan Catron's body but just a little shorter and quicker, playing the guard position. XCED is strong enough to take his guy inside, or shoot in traffic, and quick enough to get his shot off.

X-factors to watch:

Free throws: Both teams are pretty bad from the free throw line. A lead of five with two minutes to play isn't safe at all. As poorly as we've seen Oregon shoot all year (69% as a team), Mississippi State is worse. The Bulldogs shoot an awful 64% from the charity stripe.

Balanced scoring: The Bulldogs balanced scoring from all five starters is pretty impressive, but they don't appear to get much from their bench. Longmire and Viney could give the Ducks an advantage there if either plays well.

Pace: If this game goes up and down the floor it favors the Ducks. A slower game probably favors the Bulldogs. Oregon wants the score in the 80's, Mississippi State wants it in the 60's. A game in the 70's is probably a tossup and that's what you can expect it to be unless Oregon's shooting is either ice cold or red-hot.

Travel: Oregon has to travel all the way across the country. Mississippi State will be in Little Rock in no time and has played on that court. Big advantage to the Bulldogs there.

Foul trouble: With MSU's beef up front, Oregon needs to keep Maarty Leunen out of foul trouble. He's their one legitimate big man who has a chance to rebound with Varnado, Rhodes and Gordon. Catron needs to have a good rebounding game to help Leunen inside against the Bulldogs' big men, or Platt needs to come off the bench and steal some minutes for them on the glass. I look for Oregon to play the match up zone to protect Leunen and keep MSU's big men from getting easy looks. MSU is a good but not great 3-point shooting team. Getting them into a three point shooting contest might be one of Oregon's strategies on Friday.

Coaching: Kent's been to the dance a few times. Took Oregon to the Elite 8 last year and is 6-5 in five NCAA appearances. Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury is 3-4 in four NCAA tournaments. This appears to be a draw. The biggest factor here looks like which coach can get his team to impose their style of play on the game.

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