By Rob Moseley
The message from UO coach Dana Altman is repetitive and unrelenting – defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding.
From the start of this Oregon men’s basketball season, those have been Altman’s publicly stated areas of concern. A 7-0 start has eased but not alleviated them.
“I thought we took a big step this last week, and I like the progress we made,” Altman said of the Ducks’ three wins Friday through Sunday. “But we’ve got some areas of grave concern.”
Grave concern, he said. Can a 7-0 team ranked No. 13 in the nation, entering Sunday’s road test at Ole Miss (2:10 p.m. PT, ESPNU), even have areas of “grave concern”? It can if it’s Altman’s team, and the subjects are defense and rebounding.
“He knows it’s repetitive, and he says it: ‘I keep saying the same things over and over again, but you guys aren’t listening,’” UO senior Johnathan Loyd said.
Evidence suggests they have, at least to some extent. Oregon’s first two opponents shot .458, but none has been better than .408 since. The Ducks have been outrebounded just once this season.
But the level of competition is about to improve considerably, beginning Sunday. After playing at Ole Miss, the Ducks face Illinois in Portland on Dec. 14, then host BYU on Dec. 21. A couple weeks later, the daunting Pac-12 schedule begins.
So the message – defense and rebounding, rebounding and defense -- will remain consistent from Altman, with no concern that players will find it tiresome.
“It’s pretty easy to show them,” Altman said. “Unless they don’t want to join in, you can show them the easy baskets we’re giving up. So they get it pretty quick.”
Said sophomore Damyean Dotson: “We know what we have to do. Just in practice and seeing it on film, we know that’s what we’ve got to work on. And him saying it makes us want to do it, so we don’t have to hear it anymore. But that’s our main focus, too.”
Sunday brings a chance to show the Ducks are continuing to take it to heart. The Rebels, 6-0 entering Thursday’s matchup with Kansas State, are outrebounding opponents this season, led by 6-foot-8 center Demarco Cox and 6-9 forward Aaron Jones. Oregon transfers Mike Moser and Richard Amardi have been stellar in recent games, and will look to be so again.
And Oregon’s defense will be tested by a perimeter-oriented Ole Miss team with three guards averaging 15 points per game. The big name is senior Marshall Henderson, one of the nation’s most talented shooters but a bench player entering Thursday after Henderson missed the opener due to suspension.
“He can run six off just like that,” Loyd said. “You can’t think he’ll be cold for a whole game. You’ve got to be in his grill the whole time.”
The defensive assignment on Henderson could fall in part to Dotson, who will have a little extra motivation Sunday. A Houston native, Dotson will have his mother, brother, aunt and uncle in attendance, after making the drive to Ole Miss.
“It’s going to be exciting for me,” he said.
That will only add to what figures to be an electric atmosphere, the first hostile crowd the Ducks will play before this season. That will test their maturity and toughness, they know.
“We could go down early because they have so much emotion; somebody could get hurt; foul trouble,” Loyd said. “Anything could happen in a game, so we’ve just got to stay together when that happens.”
Added Moser: “For a first road game, it’s definitely going to be a tough one. But we’ve got the talent, and we’re working hard.”
Working hard, above all else on two things: defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding, defense and rebounding.