Ducks Surprising in Pac-10 Play
No, two months ago the Ducks simply were not very good, paling in comparison to the national championship-bound football team and wondering whether they might be able to live up to the shiny, new arena that was about to open.
Oregon, picked to finish last in the first season under head coach Dana Altman, lived down to that expectation with an 0-4 start in conference play and were 1-5 after the following weekend against the L.A. schools.
But since then, the Ducks have become the surprise team of the Pac-10.
Oregon is 7-7 (14-12 overall) heading into this weekend's home games against Cal and Stanford. The Ducks, who completed a season-sweep of rival Oregon State last weekend, are fourth in the Pac-10 standings behind Arizona, UCLA and Washington and with four games to go, they are in great shape to earn a top six finish.
A top six finish in the Pac-10 is a big deal. The bottom four teams in the conference standings will participate in a play-in round at the 10-team tournament in two weeks at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Any team in the play-in round would need to win four games in four days to win the tournament title and an automatic NCAA berth.
No team has reached the Pac-10 Championship out of the play-in round in the 10-team format since 2006.
"When I was at Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference, we were a 10-team league and no one out of that play-in game had won a title," Altman said. "It's tough enough to get yourselves ready for three games, but four in four nights. I think it's really difficult."
And the Ducks will try to hold their position against a Cal team that's a game back at 7-8 and a Stanford team on Sunday that's one game behind that.
Altman said he hasn't discussed all the of scenarios with his team.
"All we've talked about it getting better and improving as a team," Altman said. "We want to be playing our best ball in March and I hope we can stay focused on that."
The Ducks aren't in the top half of the Pac-10 in any team statistical category save for free-throw percentage, steals and turnover margin. Last week, forward E.J. Singler told the Eugene Register-Guard the Ducks are thriving on an "underdog" mentality.
"People have doubted us all year and we've always had that in our minds," Singler said.
But Oregon has found a formula that works. Junior guard Jay-R Strowbridge scored a career-high 26 points against Oregon State. Fellow junior guard Malcolm Armstead has picked up his play and finished with 13 assists against the Beavers.
Altman said the team took its time adjusting to the new style of play at Oregon.
"We didn't like the way we were playing in December and in January we really picked it up," Altman said. "Our guys have a little better feel for the way we want to play. Our pressing style is a little different and it was a change in style. It took the guys a while to adjust and we seem to be playing better."