Vanderbilt's roster is entirely new. Oregon's roster is mostly new, with a lot of incoming freshmen and only two returning starters from the 2011-2012 campaign. Kevin Stallings and Oregon coach Dana Altman don't know exactly what they have at this young and tender point of the season. Four good pieces of advice for each coach in this game – dispensed in one word, respectively – would be as follows: "Tinker. Tailor. Maneuver. Try."
This is a good test for Vanderbilt, and not just because this is a game played in a different corner of the country at a time when the Commodores' body clocks might be ready for bed (one recalls a recent trip to Moraga, Calif., to play Saint Mary's in the autumnal portion of the season). This game will be valuable for Stallings because he will be facing an "energy team," one that relies on quickness and movement at both ends of the floor, as opposed to power or post play. Oregon is a team of face-up shooters that likes to get in transition and play at a fast tempo. The Ducks will force the Dores to call upon a certain set of skills, revealing much about Vanderbilt's overall level of resources in the middle of November. Win or lose, Stallings can use this game to identify numerous strengths and (more important) weaknesses that can be addressed in subsequent weeks of practice.
This game, like the teams themselves, is very much a mystery. Oregon is talented enough to flourish and fragile enough to implode. Vanderbilt can't really escape the same basic characterization. The odd time slot and the early-season timing of this tilt will lend even more volatility to the proceedings in Eugene, Ore. The most important thing for Vanderbilt is to walk away from this game with a much better sense about how to handle a road trip and all the mental challenges that accompany it. The Dores will need to file away this experience when they begin to enter enemy lairs in the SEC come January.
Oregon fields a coach who can compete with Stallings on even terms. Dana Altman turned in some marvelous work for many years at Creighton. He endured a Bobby Cremins moment (i.e., a moment in which he accepted a job but then immediately backed out of it) at Arkansas, essentially cooking his career at Creighton. Oregon gave him a fresh start, and in two seasons on the job, he has certainly improved the outlook for the UO program. Oregon went 16-17 in the 2010-2011 regular season, 7-11 in the Pac-10 Conference, showing Altman how much of a rebuilding job he faced. Oregon won the CBI tournament, however, giving his team extra game and practice time that translated into results the following season.
In the 2011-2012 season, Oregon posted a 13-5 mark in the Pac-12, going 24-10 overall and reaching the NIT quarterfinals. The Ducks squeezed the trigger too anxiously in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to Colorado, a setback that knocked them out of NCAA tournament consideration, but the whole of their season eclipsed the experts' prognostications. The Ducks finished in the top three of the Pac, ahead of bigger names such as Arizona, UCLA and Stanford. Altman very much knows what he's doing.
The Ducks, however, can't depend on a lot of familiar faces this year. Two starters – E.J. Singler (yes, that's Kyle's younger brother) and Tony Woods – return, but three starting slots are up for grabs in a starting five that is likely to change many times in November and early December. The Ducks became a particularly potent offensive team at the end of last season, powered by two lethal three-point shooters, Garrett Sim and Devoe Joseph.
Sim, a pure shooter, hit 47 percent of his threes, while Joseph – a transfer from Minnesota who would have (likely) gotten the Golden Gophers to the NCAAs had he remained in Minneapolis – nailed 42 percent of his treys. The Ducks outflanked and outworked opponents in February and early March, making a hard charge at the Big Dance before falling just short. Without Sim and Joseph, though, they'll have to re-create their identity. It is still likely to be based on quickness and ball movement, but new contributors will have to do the heavy lifting. This reality is the source of UO's uncertainty as Vanderbilt comes to Matthew Knight Arena and the most oddly-decorated court in all of college basketball.
Center – Tony Woods – Senior, 6-11, 243 2011-12 STATISTICS: 6.8 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game, 1.5 blocked shots per game
The court at Matthew Knight Arena has the words "Deep In The Woods" painted in the middle third of the floor near the TV camera side. Woods is a tall tree – lanky, with a long reach. He's not particularly powerful, but he will be hard to deal with when Vanderbilt has the ball. Woods should be an even better shot blocker than he was last season. Rebounding has to be a source of concern for Altman; a player with Woods' size should be the best rebounder on the roster, but Singler was clearly the superior rebounder for the Ducks last season. Vanderbilt's frontcourt needs to body up on Woods and make sure that Oregon's center can't establish a comfort zone on the glass.
Forward – E.J. Singler – Senior, 6-6, 215; 2011-12: 13.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.2 assists per game, .368 3-PT %
Here's the man the Commodores have to handle. Singler is by far Oregon's best player. He is the best scorer and rebounder on the team, the player with sharper instincts and greater feel for the game than anyone else on the roster. He stepped up and became the crunch-time shotmaker for this team in late-season road games at Oregon State and Stanford in February of 2012. He is solidly built but agile, a player whose basketball body is balanced and tailor-made for the sport. Singler can absorb contact on forays to the rim, but he can reside on the perimeter with natural ease and grace. Disrupting Singler's rhythm must be a foremost priority for the Dores on Friday night.
Guard – Willie Moore – Freshman, 6-3, 199; 2011-12: No stats
Moore has started each of Oregon's first two games, but he played only 13 minutes this past Monday in UO's most recent game against Portland State, scoring just two points. He's a mystery, and also the most vulnerable starter on the floor for the Ducks. Vanderbilt needs to force him to make plays, instead of the other more talented performers on the UO roster.
Guard – Damyean Dotson – Freshman, 6-5, 202; 2011-12: No stats
One of three freshmen who is likely to start for Oregon in this game, Dotson – who is getting starter-level minutes whether he comes off the bench or not – has a powerful body for a backcourt player. His size will enable him to shoot over the top of opposing defenders, and while his willingness to show off his full range of skills might be tempered in an early-season contest, Dotson might be able to back down his man in the low post. Maybe Dotson will be timid or hesitant in a mid-November game, but Vanderbilt can't assume he'll play that way.
Guard – Dominic Artis – Freshman, 6-1, 185; 2011-12: No stats
If you're a freshman, and you're starting against a power-conference team at point guard on Nov. 16, you have to be particularly gifted. Freshman point guards don't normally get thrown into the fire like this, but Altman thinks that Artis has the right stuff… more so than backup Johnathan Lloyd. Indeed, the biggest source of unpredictability in this game is that on two rosters that have undergone enormous transformations, the point guards are newbies. Artis did score 16 points for Oregon in its win over Portland State on Monday night, so it's clear that the Ducks' freshman floor leader isn't afraid to take matters into his own hands.
Oregon will throw some change-of-pace players at the Commodores. Center Waverly Austin is brawny and beefy in ways that Woods isn't. He could prove to be a difficult assignment for the Dores on the low blocks. Aforementioned point guard Johnathan Loyd is a 5-8 scooter who compensates for his lack of size with an abundance of speed. Loyd will try to generate transition opportunities for the Ducks if he sees an open floor in front of him. Forward Carlos Emory should not be ignored as a scoring threat for Oregon. He was a role player last season, but he hit 7 of 8 shots in a win over Washington, displaying a level of ability that did not surface on a regular basis. Vanderbilt's scouting report should give Emory more credit than his raw numbers might initially suggest. The fact that Emory scored 15 points against Portland State this past Monday should get VU's attention. Finally, 6-9 center (more like a power forward) Austin Kuemper and 6-8 forward Ben Carter will give Vanderbilt two different looks as well. Altman might insert more pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of his undefined rotation as this game develops, but these five men round out what is (at this moment) a 10-man Oregon rotation.
Keys to the Game
1) Stop Singler. Because Oregon has only one proven returning scorer, the primacy and centrality of defending Singler can't be overstated. Double-teams are recommended unless or until the Ducks prove that other players can knock down perimeter shots with regularity.
2) Let's get physical. The Ducks are an active team, but they are not powerful. No, the Ducks aren't soft, but they don't play a bruising style. Their offense thrives on rhythm and flow, not one-on-one excellence. If Vanderbilt can play rugged defense at all five spots on the floor, it can mask its own offensive limitations. It will be important to keep this game in the 60s, at a slow pace with a grinding quality. Oregon will win this game if it's a track meet in the 80s or 90s.
General view of the Matthew Knight Arena on the University of Oregon campus. (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)