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Wrap Up from Media & Practice

March Madness has officially begun. And while the Ducks still have another day before they face Wisconsin in the first round, they talked to the media and held an open practice Thursday; here are my takeaways from both.

Oregon’s starting five, which now consists of four 6-9 players and Payton Pritchard, was a big talking point. Okoro getting the starting nod late in season was a huge part of what made this team successful, so it was obvious that change was going to get a lot of attention.

Dana Altman revealed that the idea for his big lineup wasn’t as premeditated as many would expect. Instead, it came in a fit of anger in the locker room after the USC loss.

The coach announced, “I know he’s (Okoro), starting next game, but I don’t know who else is” – and after that Altman had to keep his word. Altman attributed the success of the new starting five to the fact that they get Oregon out to a solid start on both offense and defense.

At Oregon’s open practice, it was clear that the reports of Okoro’s positive energy were spot on. From the start, Okoro was one of the few vocal players always saying, “Let's go guys; keep the energy up,” or just a simple, “Good job (teammate).” And he managed to keep a smile on his face the whole time.

Of course, Wisconsin’s star big man, Ethan Happ, was a big part of the interviews. The players and Altman talked about what they needed to do to limit his production.

What makes Happ such a good post player is that he is 6-10 but has the handles and footwork of a smaller guard. Plus, he has incredible court vision, which has allowed him to average almost 5 assists a game.

Wisconsin’s offense runs through Happ, and the Ducks know that, so limiting his touches will be hard. But they can hinder him by cutting off his angles.

Happ knows that he draws a double team, so when the ball gets inside it doesn’t usually stay there long before he kicks it back out. If Oregon can cut off some of his passes, that will do a lot to limit that side of his production.

I didn’t get the chance to interview Okoro or Kenny Wooten about guarding Happ, but I have to imagine they know how important staying out of foul trouble. Happ likes to pump fake, so it is important that they don’t over commit and get burned – or even worse, draw the foul.

Wisconsin is not only known for its slower style of play, but also as team that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes because of experience and senior leadership. Altman talked about how, “They are a team that grinds you down. … And we just have to play the way we play … and hopefully it will be an interesting game.”

While the Badgers don’t make a lot of mistakes, it is still important that Oregon brings the defensive tenacity that it has had of late. From talking to Wisconsin’s players, they seem pretty confident in their ability to move the ball against an athletic team like Oregon, but I don’t think they realize just how athletic and aggressive Oregon can be.

One thing that Altman said he fears most is that his guys might try to do too much. We all saw how Pritchard has improved over the season, because he has been able to relax and stop putting all the pressure on himself. Now, Altman worries that one of his younger players (perhaps Louis King) could put too much pressure on himself to show out in March Madness.

The final thing I thought noteworthy from the interviews was about Oregon and Wisconsin’s recent history.

The last time these two teams played, Wisconsin won in 2014 and then again in 2015 – but under different circumstances and in the second round. Wisconsin had two future NBA players in Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, and Oregon played a different brand of basketball.

Happ definitely will be a high draft pick, and Wisconsin has other players who are talented. But Kaminsky was a national Player of the Year and Dekker was phenomenal; those Badger teams were special. On the other side, Oregon was playing at a completely different style and pace.

During Oregon’s open practice, it drilled on full-court offense. I know this isn’t groundbreaking news, but seeing Oregon practice with a total of nine players. The fact that the Ducks couldn’t even do 5-on-5 without a coach stepping just shows how weird of a season this has been.

After Oregon finished its practice, I went back to where the interviews were happening to get an insight into how Wisconsin was preparing to play Oregon. Along with head coach Greg Gard, Happ, Khalil Iverson and D’Mitrik Trice were interviewed.

The key points they made:

The Wisconsin players are confident that they have played, and beaten, teams that are as athletic as Oregon. On the flip side, they are also confident that Oregon has not seen or played a team like the Badgers in the Pac-12.

The Wisconsin players were asked who they thought they had played this year that had a style similar to Oregon's; Happ responded with Illinois, and Iverson and Trice both agreed. They said that Illinois had a similar kind of defensive pressure and were also athletic and long on offense.

I asked Gard if he agreed with his players' pick, and he said that there were some similarities in offensive spreads and full-court defensive schemes. He also said there were some distinct differences, including Oregon having Altman as a coach. And that while both the Illini and the Ducks had length, they were different kinds of length.

Happ was asked about his decision to return to Wisconsin instead of going pro. He responded by saying that he had unfinished business in Madison.

Happ went on to say that because Wisconsin had failed to reach the tourney last year, he wanted to get them back there. And he wanted to win the Big Ten along the way.

Gard was also asked about the significance of having back-to-back fifth-year seniors in Kaminsky and Happ. He noted how much of an importance his staff put on developing players, saying that Kaminsky is the poster child of player development.

Gard said that last year's team struggled because it didn’t have those senior players as leaders, noting that this year's team has really stepped up in that regard.

Gard also echoed what Altman had said earlier about how both of these teams are completely different than the last time they met, so watching that footage wouldn't help either team all that much.

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Spring Practice Recap

The Ducks returned to practice early this morning after their first scrimmage up in Portland on Saturday. Head coach Mario Cristobal reflected on the weekend and what still needed to happen before football starts up again in fall.

Cristobal started by saying he was pleased with the progress he saw on Saturday but they still needed to work on penalties. Penalties have been a big part of Cristobal’s off season. And so far, I don’t think he is seeing the type of results he was hoping for by this point of the season. From watching what little of practice I could and talking to players and coaches, penalties are still wide spread throughout the team. Cristobal talked about the importance of having a team that minds the line, of not committing penalties, but also not being a team that gets pushed around. He finished with, “This team needs to play for each other and once they do that the penalties will go down.” 

But there were some positives on Saturday.

The first player that Cristobal complemented was Jordon Scott, saying he was playing at a high level. Shane Lemieux received high praise from Cristobal saying that he has become a dominant factor on the front line. The media got some extra insight into practice when Cristobal talked about Brady Breeze saying that, so far, he has pulled in an interception every practice. That’s very promising for a player that is expected to make a big impact on defense next year.

Taj Griffin received praise with Cristobal saying he has improved his speed and will surprise people with how good of a downhill runner he has become. Some other players Cristobal mentioned were Keith Simms, Ugochukwu Amadi, La’Mar Winston Jr., and Tony Brooks-James. But the player who received the most talk was Brenden Schooler.

Schooler, the defensive back who transitioned to wide receiver last year, had everyone talking about him before practice, including Cristobal and Justin Herbert. Cristobal talked about how he has become a team favorite and really committed to improving himself. Schooler made a lot of big plays on Saturday and showed what he can do now. Throughout the 8 spring practices I have noticed his steep improvement in the fundamentals of being a wide receiver and I am really excited to see what he will do for the Ducks come fall.

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Impact: Okoro Reclassifies

Last month, the Oregon men's basketball team landed a somewhat unexpected addition in Ehab Amin, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M/Corpus Christi who will provide some much-needed experience for the Ducks' backcourt.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Oregon’s basketball team just got another boost from Francis Okoro, who decided to reclassify for 2018 and join the Ducks this season, a year ahead of schedule. Okoro, a 4-star center out of Normal (Illinois), caps off a top-5 recruiting class and joins an already loaded frontcourt.

"I just decided to reclassify because I felt like it would be good for me and help with my game,” Okoro said.

It’s no secret why Okoro would want to join this year’s class. Oregon returns a strong core of players, including Payton Pritchard, Kenny Wooten, Paul White, Victor Bailey Jr. and Abu Kigab. And the roster will be bolstered by the highest ranked recruiting class in school history, led by dual 5-star recruits Bol Bol and Louis King.

So what does Okoro bring to the already loaded Ducks?

Freak athleticism: Okoro stands 6-8 and weighs 230 pounds, with a 7-1 wingspan. His athletic and powerful frame combined with a high motor allow him to make athletic plays on both sides of the ball. He is a powerful rebounder and a strong interior defender who can intimidate players with his size alone. On the offensive end he runs the floor well for his size and scores a majority of his points from crashing the glass -- no surprise there. He also has been developing a hook shot over his left shoulder, a man after my own heart.

Depth: The other thing Okoro brings to the Ducks is more frontcourt depth. Okoro joins Wooten, White and Bol to give Oregon what should be one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country. Okoro will have to fight for minutes this year, but he knew that coming into the program; that means he is ready to compete. That type of competition will be great for the Ducks, as it will bring out the best in all the players.

Areas to improve: I would like to see Okoro expand his athletic skill set. I like how he is developing a hook shot; I would like to see more overall development, such as being able to force defenders to pick him up farther away from the basket. And he needs to improve his free throw percentage; with the amount of contact he gets, he needs to make his free throws.

Bottom line: Okoro's reclassification is a big plus for the Ducks because he adds length, athleticism and depth. I am excited because Okoro knew full well the talent of the players already at Oregon and those coming in this fall; that indicates he is confident he can compete for immediate playing time.

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