By Rob Moseley
How would they replace the dynamic playmaking of Artis? Or the sublime post presence of Carter? Especially on a team with seven new scholarship players?
Turns out, the answers were right there all the time. Jonathan Loyd returned to the level of play that made him MVP of last year’s Pac-12 tournament. Senior transfer Jason Calliste provided minutes at the point that kept Loyd from wearing down as he did while Artis was out injured last season. And athletic wings Mike Moser and Elgin Cook were willing to do yeoman’s work in the post, helping the Oregon men’s basketball team to a perfect 9-0 start while Artis and Carter were out.
The No. 13 Ducks are in such a good place right now that, following Saturday’s gritty comeback to beat Illinois in Portland, UO coach Dana Altman said neither Artis nor Carter will start when Oregon returns to action Tuesday in Matthew Knight Arena against UC Irvine (7:36 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
The bigger immediate impact, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, could come from Carter, for a team looking to improve its post defense and rebounding. The sophomore averaged 2.4 points and 2.3 rebounds last season, but was a projected starter down low prior to his suspension.
Artis is the bigger name of the two, having averaged 8.5 points and a team-high 3.2 rebounds as a true freshman. But Loyd has been a revelation through nine games, averaging 11.1 points and 7.3 assists. And Calliste is second with 22 assists, plus 10.8 points per game and a steely demeanor that steadied Oregon during its comeback effort Saturday in Portland.
“It’s a team effort, but at the same time you’ve got to give credit to Johnny and Jason,” Moser said. “Their senior leadership is really instrumental in a lot of the wins we’ve been getting. Definitely, credit goes to them.”
Loyd has averaged 28.4 minutes per game, a light enough load to keep his energy level high. Down the stretch Saturday, Loyd scored Oregon’s final six points of a 71-64 win, including a jumper with 28 seconds left for a 67-62 cushion.
Loyd also has games with 15 and 13 assists so far this season. With him at the helm, Oregon averages 89.1 points per game and is shooting 53.2 percent, among the best offensive numbers in the nation.
“If you get Loyd on the fast break, he’s gonna find somebody open,” sophomore Damyean Dotson said.
Whenever he enters Tuesday’s game, Carter will be thrown into the fire against one of the nation’s biggest teams. UC Irvine’s rosters boasts players listed at 7-6 (Mamadou Ndiaye), 7-2 (Ioannis Dimakopoulos), 6-10 (John Ryan) and 6-10 (Mike Best).
The Ducks will have three days to regroup before hosting BYU on Saturday, then a full seven days off before Morgan State visits on Dec. 29. Artis and Carter have been practicing with the team all season, but that provides a critical stretch of practice time in which to further incorporate them into the mix.
“This is a great time – finals are over, everything’s behind them,” Altman said, noting that academic requirements caused some players to be late for practices last week, and affected Oregon’s overall focus.
“It was a hectic week for us. Now we’ve got some time we can focus on basketball a little bit more.”
That will include carving out roles for Artis and Carter moving forward. But their return is much less critical to Oregon’s fortunes than might have been anticipated just a few weeks ago.