by Rob Moseley
MILWAUKEE — In achieving today's appearance in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Oregon men's basketball team is right where everybody thought it would be to start the calendar year.
On Jan. 2, the Ducks won at Utah in overtime. They were 13-0. Of course they'd be playing in the tournament.
Then, of course, a 1-6 finish to January. The last defeat of the month was a two-point loss at UCLA. It was followed over the next nine days by two-point defeats at Arizona and ASU, as well. The Ducks were 15-8, and suddenly looking like an underdog to make the Big Dance.
But here's Oregon, the seventh seed in the West Region, prepared to face No. 10 seed BYU in the BMO Harris Bradley Center this afternoon (12:10 p.m. PT, TruTV).
"A month ago, this didn't look like it was going to happen," UO coach Dana Altman said. "So I'm real happy for the guys that they got things on the right track and were able to participate in this year's NCAA Tournament."
Participation, though, wasn't Oregon's goal. The Ducks want to go on an extended run, after reaching the Sweet Sixteen last season.
First, that means beating the Cougars in the second round. Here are Altman's three keys to doing so:
1. Run back on defense
This might be the biggest lesson the Ducks took from their first meeting with the Cougars, a 100-96 overtime win in Eugene back on Dec. 21. BYU shot .472 for the game, including .567 while blitzing Oregon in the first half, 47-41.
"We know we've got to put our defensive transition together quicker," Altman said. "I think that will be a big, big key in the game."
The Cougars will play without guard Kyle Collinsworth, their leader in assists, due to a knee injury. The Ducks expect his replacements to be energized by the opportunity, and for BYU to be more aggressive than ever Thursday.
While the Ducks are confident they can keep up in a shootout, they'd prefer their defense contribute to a victory as well.
"I think it's going to come down to whoever can get stops," said post Waverly Austin, whose presence in the middle was the key to a win over ASU in Eugene on March 4. "We're looking forward to that. We're all ready for it."
2. Contain Tyler Haws
A 6-foot-5 junior guard, Haws is the No. 3 leading scorer in the tournament field, behind Doug McDermott of Creighton and T.J. Warren of North Carolina State.
The Ducks respect him immensely for his ability to catch the ball, take one or two quick dribbles and then pull up for a midrange jump shot. He did so to great effect against Oregon in December.
"Tyler really hurt us," Altman said. "He got 32 in the game, but he hits a variety of shots and so, you know, he's getting almost 24 points a game. So it's no accident. He scores against everybody, and he's a great midrange player. Gets to the basket and inside, he really offensive rebounds very well."
There's no use thinking Oregon can completely shut down Haws. But he's mired in a mini-slump, shooting .414 over his last five. A continuation of that level of offensive efficiency would be a welcome result for the Ducks.
One thing to watch: In the absence of Collinsworth, the Cougars have said they may shoot more three-pointers. Haws has attempted 95 this season — five fewer than Joseph Young, a handful more than Jason Calliste or Mike Moser — and has made 39. That's .411 accuracy, though that's down to .227 over the last nine games.
3. Crash the boards
Along with defense, this has been Altman's constant theme with this year's Ducks. They don't have anybody as tenacious as Arsalan Kazemi, but over the last few weeks they've been able to cobble together serviceable efforts that were key to the late eight-game winning streak.
"We've only really been in a situation where we haven't scored for five, six minutes in a game, maybe one, two times this year," Moser said. "So, that's never going to be really the issue for us. We just feel if we take care of defending and rebounding — which we weren't doing consistently (earlier in the season), which I feel like is why we kind of took those skids and some of those losses — we started doing that on a consistent basis, we started really winning games."
Again, Collinsworth's absence weakens the Cougars here, as he averaged 8.1 rebounds per game. But the Cougars have 6-11 Nate Austin down low, scarfing up 8.0 rebounds per game, and the 6-10 Eric Mika averaging 6.4.
In particular, the Ducks want to keep BYU off the offensive glass — on the off chance Haws misses, you don't want him getting another shot on the same possession.
Succeed on all three of those fronts, and the Ducks should be in good position to advance past today's second round, into a game Saturday against the Wisconsin-American winner.
"You don't want to go back on the same day of the first game," UO forward Ben Carter said. "You don't want to have to get on that plane and head back after the first day. You want to play it out and try to be out here and enjoy this as long as you can, because it really is something special."