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The Ducks have a strong defense - nearly as strong as Oklahoma State's. How will the Cowboys attack them Thursday afternoon?
As you've heard at least 1,000 times by now, the Oklahoma State Cowboys got a tough draw because of some bracketing minutia, and will have to play a grossly underseeded Oregon team in their first game in the NCAA tournament. I think we've all complained about that enough by now, and it's time to start focusing on actually playing Oregon and the specific challenges they will pose for the Pokes.
Here's the bare bones summary of what Oregon brings to the table: On defense, the Ducks only allow 88.6 points per 100 possessions, the 16th best defensive efficiency in the country, they clean up on the defensive glass, they force a lot of turnovers. On offense Oregon is significantly worse. They shoot just 32.% from three (nearly as bad OK State's 31.6% mark), they turn the ball over on 21.3% of their possessions and they rely heavily on free throws to get points. Like the Pokes, Oregon gets a larger percentage of their points from the stripe than from beyond the arc (22% to 21%).
Today I'll be focusing on the Ducks' defense and how the Cowboys matchup with them. My preview on the challenges of Oregon's offense will come in a separate post.
The Ducks only allow .804 points per possession according to Synergy Sports Technology, one of the best marks in the country. They do this primarily by disrupting their opponents' rhythm and getting into them on every possession.
The Ducks close out hard on every spot-up opportunity and force their opponents to put the ball on the floor rather than allowing a clean look at the basket. With a great shot blocker (6'11" senior Tony Woods) on the backline, the Ducks can funnel their men from the perimeter into the middle of the floor and force them deal with Woods, or stick on their hip, which their athletic wings can often do. When something as simple as catch-and-shoot chances become a chore, offenses can really start to bog down.
Closing out spot-up shooters also plays into Oregon's pick-and-roll defense. They play a very aggressive style with their bigs hedging hard more often than not on high ball screens. Being so aggressive far away from the basket can put pressure on your off-ball defenders to be precise and on-time with their rotations, and the Ducks do a really good job of not beating themselves with this strategy. The Ducks have an aggressive scheme against the pick-and-roll and all five players on the floor must be on a string for it work, which is usually the case.
Oregon only allows opposing pick-and-roll ball handlers to shoot 37% of the time from the field, but what's even more impressive is that a quarter of those pick-and-rolls don't even end in a shot because the Ducks are so good at forcing turnovers up high. Whether it's the big man coming up and getting his hand on the ball or the guard anticipating the pass to the roll man after fighting through the screen, the Ducks do a great job defending their opponents' next move, and creating those turnovers gives their offense a much needed boost in possessions.
Take a look at a few possessions here where the Ducks force their opponents into turnovers by disrupting their flow with their aggressive big men.
Senior power forward Arsalan Kazemi is the key in Oregon's pick-and-roll scheme. The 6'7" big man has a ton of big game experience, and I'm not talking about him playing in the Pac-12 Title game, either. We're talking playing in the 2010 FIBA World Championships for Iran big game experience, and guarding guys like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic and Rudy Gay.
I love the way Kazemi plays the game. He's a small forward for his national team but plays bigger for Oregon. He's a very athletic player that can go out and hedge hard, stay with guards on switches and clean up the defensive boards (he has the second best defensive rebound rate in the nation). Take a look here at how he gets out on Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, who rarely turns the ball over.
Kazemi is so good at using his body to prevent you from getting any dribble penetration while reaching at the perfect times with his arms to create steals against guards that think he's just at typical big man that will soon retreat back to his man. I love Smart, but his turnover rate is a bit high, so he will need to be weary any of Kazemi any time he shoots out at him.
Speaking of which: You don't have to go back very far to see how Marcus Smart and the Cowboys' offense fared against a team with similar defensive principles. The Kansas State Wildcats had their bigs shoot up towards the ball handler on high screens and it really took the Cowboys out of their game. Continuing to play the Philip Jurick/Michael Cobbins frontcourt duo allows teams to do this without much worry. When Smart gets trapped up high or forced way out of the play, Oklahoma State has failed to make the defense pay, in part because their bigs don't stretch the floor, but mostly because Marcus isn't all that dangerous as a shooter and the Cowboys do a very poor job of moving without the ball.
I think the ideal move for Coach Ford is to play a smaller, shooter oriented line-up (Forte/Brown/Nash) against Oregon's aggressive defense, allowing Nash to play his natural "hybrid" four spot. We've seen this line-up a ton before, but the Cowboys need it as soon as possible in this game so as not to get off to another slow and disheartening start that may discourage the team.
Forte has proven to have a great basketball IQ and tremendous chemistry with Smart - this is something Whetsell talked about on the podcast - so that you have a player on the floor that knows how to find an open spot for Smart when he's being forced away from the basket. Brown has all of the physical tools to do the same thing, but for whatever reason he hasn't been as effective at finding those spaces on the floor when Smart gets in trouble. I'm sure this is something the team discussed when they watched the film of the Kansas State loss from the Big 12 tournament, as that was a huge issue in that game.
The more I look at tape and study the numbers, I think that the Ducks are going to do everything in their power to make sure Marcus Smart doesn't wow the bevy of NBA scouts that will be tuned in to watch him play. In addition to being aggressive against Smart in the pick-and-roll, Oregon has also thrown a zone press at teams to stop their point guards from getting into quick offense and from touching the ball altogether. I think that is something that the Ducks will show Smart in this game in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands. And though Marcus is a lot bigger than Oregon's point guard options, I get the sense that Oregon head coach Dana Altman will put 6'5" senior guard Carlos Emory on Smart for stretches, or perhaps the majority of the game if he has the option of hiding his smaller point guards on Forte.
Smart is a good enough player that he will still be able to make plays for others, and his skill set will definitely beat Oregon's scheme on some possessions, but I don't see him having a huge game from a scoring perspective (though that has been a good thing in general for the Cowboys this season).
You know what that means: The Pokes will be relying on a big game from Nash in order to advance.
As scary as it sounds, I think there is a big chance for Nash to put up a decisive performance in this game. What it will come down to is whether or not Nash shows up to the arena focused and ready to go (a 30/70 proposition at this point), though I also contend that this is a big moment for Travis Ford.
Whetsell and I talked at length in the podcast about Ford not maximizing the talent of this group, and, well, here is Ford's chance to go to Nash tonight or tomorrow morning and tell him that they will only go as far as he takes them. This is just my theory, but I think Nash has probably lost a little bit of confidence this season with Smart (deservedly) grabbing the headlines and his draft stock taking a hit. I think it would be huge for Ford to look him in the eye and let him know how much the team needs him to perform in this game.
An enraged, motivated Nash is capable of doing big things, particularly in the post, which is where I think the Pokes have to attack the Ducks in order to get consistently good looks. The pick-and-roll attack is going to get stagnant at times and the Pokes aren't likely to get many clean looks at the rim from deep. The solution is putting Nash in the post, either with his back to the basket or in a face-up position from the mid-post, and imploring him to attack for 40 minutes.
Nash draws 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes according to KenPom, and he has a solid 50.1% free throw rate. Having him attack someone like Kazemi in the post could get him in foul trouble and take one o f the Ducks' best players out of the game. And if Kazemi is out, the space for some pick-and-roll action may be reborn because of how important Kazemi is to Oregon's defensive scheme.
It's tough to put the hopes of a team that we will likely never see again after this month on the shoulders of a kid who has done nothing but fail to meet expectations during his college career. But I see Nash as the Pokes' biggest advantage in this game, and it just comes down to whether or not he shows up ready to play.
We better start praying now.