by Rob Moseley
PORTLAND — As questions go, it wasn't one likely to prompt a great answer.
Coaches are incredibly detail-oriented, and so big-picture narrative tends not to be a focus. Thus, asking Dana Altman if he would have predicted a 9-0 start despite suspensions to two projected starters wasn't without risk.
"I didn't really give it much thought," the UO coach said Saturday night. "If I'm going to tell the team we've got to stay focused on getting better every day, it's pretty hard for a coach to look ahead. There's so many variables that can change game to game, week to week."
Indeed, so many hurdles that can crop up. An overtime game on the road, like the one Oregon faced at Ole Miss a week ago. Or 30 minutes of allowing Illinois to dictate play, as the Ducks did Saturday at the Moda Center.
And yet the 15th-ranked UO men's basketball team passed both of those tests, beating the Rebels in overtime, and overcoming a nine-point deficit in the second half to beat the Illini, 71-64. Oregon proved itself to be deep, and balanced, and resilient, all while playing nine games without point guard Dominic Artis and Ben Carter due to their NCAA suspensions.
"It feels really good," senior Mike Moser said. "We've been playing at a high level. There's some things we want to work on, but the undefeated part is pretty good."
The Ducks showed off both the high level and the things that need work Saturday. Seven minutes into the second half, Illinois took a 50-41 lead. To that point, Oregon was sloppy offensively, lethargic defensively, disinterested on the glass.
But then, fueled by an enthusiastic Portland crowd, the switch flipped. Oregon moved to a zone defense that frustrated the Illini's ability to attack in the post. Turnovers fueled transition offense, a pace more preferable to the Ducks.
A basket by Joseph Young capped a 17-4 run as the Ducks rallied to a 58-54 lead. Illinois mustered one last push, for a 59-58 edge, but Oregon finished with a flourish, another run of 13-5.
"The pendulum really swung the last 10 minutes," Altman said. "And a lot of it was just our defensive energy."
The coach seemed to push all the right buttons down the stretch, starting with the use of the zone on defense. He called several set plays on offense that resulted in buckets, and was willing to sit sophomore Damyean Dotson — the Ducks' top returning scorer from last season — down the stretch for the sake of rolling with a hot lineup.
That included Johnathan Loyd, who scored Oregon's final six points; icy combo-guard Jason Calliste, an underrated floor general; athletic frontcourt players Moser and Elgin Cook; and leading scorer Young, who took over in overtime at Ole Miss but didn't score at all during the final 13-5 run Saturday.
Moser, a Portland native making his homecoming, finished with 14 points, as did Young. Cook scored 12, Loyd had 11 and Dotson added 10, the Ducks getting five players in double figures for the fifth straight game.
"It's hard for a team to guard us," Dotson said. "Anybody can score at any time."
For as encouraging as the final few minutes were, however, Altman was equally concerned with the way the Ducks allowed Illinois to set the tone for the first 30 or so minutes.
"It's a great characteristic to have as a ball team, to be able to turn it up a notch and go," Altman said. "But over the long haul, if you depend on that very often, it's going to bite you. …
"Sometimes you have to lose to learn. I hope we have the maturity to learn from wins, so that we can get a lot better."
To be sure, the Ducks have worlds of potential, still. On Tuesday against UC Irvine, they'll welcome back their projected starting point guard, Artis, and a forward in Carter who should help address some of the defensive end rebounding deficiencies that have so concerned Altman.
"This team, there's just a lot more there," the UO coach said. "We're scratching the surface."
And yet, the Ducks are 9-0. Not many would have predicted as much, including, one would imagine, Altman himself.
NOTES: Oregon improves to 9-0 for the first time since the 2006-07 season, when the Ducks opened the season with a 13-game win streak. … 71 are the most points an opponent has scored against Illinois this season. Their previous season-high points allowed total was 67. … After trailing 50-41 in the second half, Oregon finished the game on a 30-14 run to earn the comeback victory. … Oregon has played four teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last season (Georgetown, Pacific, Ole Miss, and Illinois). … The Ducks shot nearly 60% in the second half, making 29-of-52 FG attempts.