The Pac-12 preseason men’s basketball favorite isn't being called that very often these days.
Oregon was the media’s pick to win the conference and ranked as high as No. 13 in the country based largely on the arrival of five-star freshman Bol Bol, who was a leading contender for Pac-12 player of the year before a foot injury ended his season after nine games.
Kenny Wooten is out for another month due to a fractured jaw, and Abu Kigab abruptly transferred out of the program this week, leaving Oregon (9-4) with eight scholarship players available when it hosts Oregon State (8-4) to open conference play at 5 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s going to be a struggle for Oregon to try and win the league,” Pac-12 Network analyst Don MacLean said as conference games began Thursday. “Dana Altman is such a good coach, I think they will still compete and win some games but as far as winning the Pac-12, I think it’s going to be different without Bol Bol.”
That’s the opposite of what Payton Pritchard heard nearly three months ago when he joined Altman at Pac-12 media day to learn that Oregon was picked on 16 of 25 ballots to win the conference.
“People are counting us out, so what do we have to lose at this point?,” Pritchard asked Friday. “Everybody is doubting us and we hear it, we see it. That’s cool, it makes us play more free. We want to go out and prove them wrong.”
There is not an overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 after a poor record in nonconference play left the conference without a team in the Top 25.
“I don’t want guys looking ahead, worrying about that,” UO coach Dana Altman said. “There is nothing we can do about it. We can’t change November or December. … This is a young team and if they start looking ahead, we really have a problem. We are 9-4 and that is what it is. All we can worry about is Saturday, but that is hard to do with everybody writing stuff and telling them what they should be thinking.”
Altman has used a different starting lineup during each of the past four games without Bol as Pritchard and senior forward Paul White are the only two players to start each of those games.
White began the year playing mostly on the perimeter with Bol and Wooten in the middle, but will need to play inside more along with freshmen Francis Okoro and Miles Norris, who were both being integrated slowly into Oregon’s rotation but will now see a spike in minutes. While Bol and Wooten combined for 43 blocked shots, the trio of White, Okoro and Norris have seven.
“Bol and Kenny were such a presence inside defensively and that is why most of our defensive numbers have been good,” Altman said. “That changes a bit defensively what we have to do.”
The Ducks will be tested inside by OSU’s Kylor Kelley, a 7-foot transfer from Northwest Christian and Lane Community College who leads the nation with 4.1 blocks per game, and 6-11, 255-pound Gligorije Rakocevic, who recently returned from injury.
“Playing those two together we have a big lineup,” OSU coach Wayne Tinkle said. “The physicality of Big G with the athleticism and length of Kylor.”
Oregon’s big men will also need to avoid foul trouble with a short bench, but that goes for the whole roster.
Louis King is able to play 30 minutes per game after working his way back from offseason surgery, but the freshman has made less than one-third of his shots during each of the past five games. Oregon is shooting 43 percent from the field in four games without Bol.
“We have to trust each other more and get the ball moving,” Altman said. “When we are doing that, we have a lot of guys who can finish the play. I think we are a better shooting team than we have shown. We haven’t moved the ball to get the kind of shots we need.”
Ehab Amin was a combined 7-for-34 from the field in his previous nine games before going 8-for-13 for 23 points in last Saturday’s 62-50 win over Boise State.
“That was great seeing the ball go through again,” he said. “Getting my confidence back is huge before Pac-12.”
Altman has started both Victor Bailey and Will Richardson at times in the backcourt with Pritchard while Amin comes off the bench.
“Ehab is going to have to continue to play multiple positions for us,” Altman said. “He got back on track a bit at Boise. We don’t need those kinds of numbers out of him, but if we can get half of that and his energy really helps.”
Oregon has had two weeks and one game to prepare for playing without Bol, Wooten and Kigab.
“Coach talked about how all we’ve got is all we need,” Amin said. “Guys are stepping up and we prepared well for Pac-12. I think everybody’s confidence is getting better and they are adjusting to new roles.”