Entering Pac-10 conference play as the third-highest scoring team in the nation, one might imagine that the University of Oregon just takes off running their opponent into exhaustion from the opening tip.
However, despite the anticipation of an engrossing and "up-tempo, beat-the-defense-to-the-other-end strategy" led by coach Paul Westhead, Oregon did not exactly open their conference schedule at breakneck speed.
While the University of Washington tried to slow them down and take them out of their game on Friday, Washington State University actually tried to run with them. In the end, neither team was able to overcome Oregon's high-scoring attack, as Oregon got out to a 2-0 start this weekend.
Washington State tries to run with the Ducks
In their 98-92 win over Washington State yesterday, Oregon had slow starts to both halves with brief bursts to catapult them to victory.
In the first half with WSU up 19-18, point guard Nia Jackson led a lightening quick 10-0 run, scoring her own points on free throws after a strong drive to the basket and setting up teammates for consecutive threes to put Oregon up 28-19.
In the second half, with the Ducks down 75-80 with 6:44 left, it was Jackson again who led the team on 13-3 a run over a two and a half minute span. This time she did the majority of the scoring herself driving to the basket, causing 2 of her 5 steals for easy fast break layups, and finding guard Micaela Cocks – who finished with a team-high 22 points – for a three with 5:12 left. As part of a much larger 23-12 run to finish the game, it shifted the momentum, got the crowd involved and ultimately sealed the victory.
Washington tries to slow Oregon down
Against the University of Washington on New Year’s Day, it was a similar story, albeit a slightly more comfortable 80-69 win.
Oregon led 17-14 with 14 minutes left in the first half after two free throws from active UW forward Mackenzie Argens. It was hardly what one might expect to see against a struggling Washington team that most people expect to finish last place in the Pac-10 this season.
Far from exciting or engrossing, it looked as though Washington had successfully slowed the game down as they wanted and made it a grind-it-out half court game. Then guard Taylor Lilley found a rhythm that seemed to bring the entire team to life.
After consecutive steals and a three pointer by Lilley, Oregon jumped out to an 8 point lead with 12:45 left. After a brief spurt by Washington, they used another Lilley three, a layup from Jasmin Holliday, and a three by forward Victoria Kenyon to take a 10 point lead at the 9:53 mark. Having hit their stride, they pushed the lead to 17 with 6:03 left before going into halftime with a 14 point lead.
These lapses and spurts could be considered signs of weaknesses for a team that once garnered 9 votes in the AP poll during December. However, in the context of the broader “Paul Ball” narrative – in which the expectation has traditionally been a 5-seconds-or-less shooting “speed game” – it demonstrates some nuance to the standard narrative about their approach.
A controlled "speed game"
"It's interesting: we're a kind of team - even though we try to press and run and get out and go at 100 miles an hour, frequently the game -- the first 4 or 5 minutes -- is like 14-10, 10-8," said Westhead after the Washington win. "Then if what we're doing is working, we'll have a little burst in the middle of the first half. And we did. And then we didn't sustain it...We need to break people and keep it that way."
“Patience” is not normally a term associated with Westhead’s trademark 5-seconds-or-less speed game. However, the ability for different players to come up big for the team in tough spots demonstrates a level of mindfulness and discipline that people don’t usually associate with “100 miles an hour” play. Although Oregon does put up a lot of points and seems to score in lightening quick spurts, it’s not quite the frenzied and reckless pace one might expect in which a team trades sloppy, ragged play with tons of turnovers for easy baskets. They patiently find what's working and then capitalize on it.
So the perennial question is not only whether it works, but also whether it's sustainable.
The preliminary answer is, yes, it's working. And thus far, what makes Paul Ball potentially sustainable at Oregon it that it's a decisive, balanced, and patient attack that is remarkably efficient.
Can "Paul Ball" work?
After a convincing 88-61 win against Boise State University, coach Gordy Presnell probably articulated the skepticism about the sustainability of Westhead’s approach in the women’s college game best.
Age Won't Slow Down Paul Westhead -- NBA FanHouse
Broncos coach Gordy Presnell didn't believe the Ducks were trying to rub it in because that's the style they play. But Presnell wonders if they can keep up that frantic pace the entire season.
"I have never seen a team press in women's baseball as effectively in February as they do in December,'' Presnell said. "Players fatigue so it will be real interesting, and they don't have a lot of depth ... I don't want to sound negative but when you get to the NCAA tournament the rim shrinks and possessions become more important.''
While they only played 7 players significant minutes against Washington and 7 against Washington State University, the way in which they sized up their opponent in the opening minutes and then fluidly adapted to find ways to beat them most effectively, demonstrates balance both in their ability to change pace and in who they rely upon for scoring.
Although they needed 33 from Lilley to beat Washington, Amanda Johnson -- who led the team statistically averaging a double-double in non-conference play -- struggled finishing with 6 points on 2-7 shooting.
"They've got 4 people on any given day who can average a double," said UW coach Tia Jackson when asked about how they approached stopping Johnson.
Oregon reinforced Jackson’s claim on Sunday night.
Against WSU, although Cocks was the leading scorer, six players scored in double figures and the MVP was almost indisputably Jackson, who finished with 20 points on 7-14 shooting, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 1 turnover. Lilley “only” contributed a pedestrian 15 points.
Not only are they running, but they’re demonstrating the ability to get efficient contributions from multiple places.
“Well, I mean, the way that we play it really shouldn’t be one player being the key player on offense,” said Westhead after the WSU victory. “It really is more of a group kinda thing. If you really look at the stats, it really comes out that way. We have a whole bunch of players – six players – all in double figures. So Taylor Lilley didn’t have a 30 plus game, but she was right in the thick of our offense. So I’d say it was a team offense tonight, more than anything else. And it should be that way.”
Rather than fall apart when they face adversity or have one player taken away by the defense, Oregon maintains a steady holding to their team concept, patiently picking and choosing their spots even as they try to push the tempo. They’re not just taking shots quickly, but quickly finding the best shot for the team in response to what the opponent gives them.
It's part of what separates Oregon from other teams Washington has faced who play "speed ball".
"They're just more efficient," said Washington senior guard Sami Whitcomb in response to a question about how Oregon compares to other uptempo teams Washington has played, like Sacramento State University. "They use their possessions very well."
Even while pushing the tempo, Oregon shot 50% against Washington and had an effective field goal percentage of 62.04%, including 13-23 from the three point line. In other words, they weren't just scoring on fast break layups or firing up bad shots -- they are becoming increasingly adept at finding shots in the flow of their offense.
Slowly finding a flow
"For the past couple of games, I just kinda relaxed out there and just kinda let the game come to me," said Lilley after the Washington game. "I just felt like in a couple of games I was trying to rush things a lot. And so I've just kinda taken a deep breath in and just letting it flow and just trusting my shot enough that it's going to go in."
As Westhead stressed, this isn't a completely unstructured offense predicated on one-on-one play, but one dependent on a group effort and the players' ability to find opportunities within the flow of the game.
If Lilley's career-high 33 point outburst on 11-17 shooting is an example of what can occur when players get comfortable with the system and "let the game come to" them, it bodes well for the Ducks' chances this season. Already the Ducks are one of the top shooting teams in the Pac-10, with an effective field goal percentage of 50.46% and among the lowest turnover percentages in the conference at 14.10% through non-conference play.
With an implicit nod to Presnell’s critique, Westhead knows that he needs to figure out how to integrate more players into the flow of his rotation – a 7 player rotation will likely wear down players over the course of a season (though he referred to Jackson as his most rested player because she wasn’t responsible for a huge offensive burst the previous game). Yet whether they tire or not, they're playing very good basketball right now.
Of course, they are still only 14 games into their progression of learning Westhead's system and Westhead learning their abilities. And as Westhead said, they need to cut down on turnovers, work on hustling to retrieve loose balls, rebound better, and play more consistently overall.
Nevertheless, the need for improvement doesn't diminish the fact that they are both becoming increasingly comfortable with the system and enjoying their early success as a team.
“I play off our players – like I said, I walked in [the locker room] and they were joyous, jubilant, happy,” said Westhead. “I think that reflects how they should feel. We’re 11-3? We’re happy. And we just have the enjoyable task of keeping it going -- it is enjoyable to be there and it is a task, so we’re gonna try and live up to it.
A new era for a new building
The new Matthew Knight Arena is scheduled to open in December 2010.
As the final 30 seconds ticked away on Friday’s game against Washington, the exuberant McCarthur Court crowd stood and gave the Ducks a standing ovation.
While it might strike an outsider as odd to applaud a team for their first conference win of the season against a team expected to finish last, for one long-time fan sitting just behind media row, it was an expression of building anticipation of an improved performance in Westhead’s first season.
"It's a whole new crowd -- they're see to the coach," said a long-time fan just after the game. "Everything is new. We just want to see some winning."
“It's the same team -- the same players -- it's just a different coach,” interjected her friend, who spent most of the game punishing my eardrums yelling “ORRRRRRREGOONNNNNN!!”.
The excitement expressed by the fans in their Pac-10 opener is exactly the type of splash that former Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny hoped for when he hired Westhead.
Paul Westhead will become Oregon's new women's basketball coach | The Ducks Beat - OregonLive.com
Kilkenny, who has a friendship with Westhead, didn't hide his intention of making a splashy hire that would help increase women's basketball attendance, which had dwindled in recent years. That is particularly vital to the UO athletic department with the 12,500 seat Matthew Knight Arena expected to open in January 2011.
Thus far, Oregon has not only created a buzz among fans, but also established early that they can win with Westhead’s system.
Although doubters may continue to respond to Oregon’s early success with skepticism, the team is focused squarely on maintaining their performance rather than worrying what others think of them.
"I probably don't have much to say to them," said Lilley in response to how she would respond to skeptics. "It's based on us and our performance. We just have to go into every game and our record will hopefully then show them that the schedule really doesn't matter and that we can play."
- This is the last season Oregon will play at McArthur court and while some people may be ready to see the old wooden building go in favor of a newer state-of-art-facility (a member of the cleaning staff found a dead mouse after Friday's game), there is something special about actually feeling a building shake as fans get pumped up stomping their feet. Although worn, the building has a unique charm and a great vibe. If you haven't yet been, it's worth the trip to see the nation's third oldest college basketball arena in use.
- Westhead on the upcoming Civil War game: "I was too young for the Civil War – barely – but now I’m in the middle of it."
- For each game this season, Oregon will have an honorary captain. On Friday, the honorary captain was former UO star and current New York Liberty forward Catherine Kraayveld. On Sunday, it was former coach Jody Runge, the winningest coach in the history of the Oregon women's basketball program.