ESPN picked the first meeting of the year between preseason Pac-12 favorites for its prime-time telecast Thursday.
Bill Walton and Dave Pasch will bring their act to Matthew Knight Arena, but a couple of the expected headliners will be absent when UCLA visits Oregon at 6 p.m.
The addition of freshman Bol Bol was the main reason why Oregon was declared the conference favorite, but the Ducks have dropped three of five games since losing their leading scorer and rebounder due to season-ending foot surgery.
UCLA was considered Oregon’s top challenger in the polls as Steve Alford looked to finally have a team capable of winning a conference title, but he was fired midway through his sixth season following four straight losses. Assistant Murry Bartow took over last week and led the Bruins to wins over California and Stanford by an average of 18.5 points.
“Same talent level and same schemes, they just hit some shots and played with a lot of energy at home,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said Wednesday.
That’s what Altman would like to say about his team, which has trailed at halftime in each of its last three games, including losses to Baylor and Oregon State.
“I don’t like our energy,” the coach said. “That’s partly on me. Guys have to come energized and ready to play and the coaching staff has to have them ready. It is obvious to the fans and coaches that our energy level is just not good enough.”
Oregon (9-5, 0-1) opened Pac-12 play with a 77-72 loss against Oregon State on Saturday, the first of three home games to open the conference schedule. That raised the urgency level for the Ducks as they host UCLA (9-6) and USC (9-6) — who are tied for first place in the conference at 2-0 — before taking arguably the toughest road trip in the conference to face the Arizona schools.
With Kenny Wooten still a couple of weeks away from returning from a broken jaw, the Ducks have eight scholarship players.
“We had combinations out there (against Oregon State) that we never practiced with,” Altman said. “As a coach you hate to put players in that position to go out there and have offensive and defensive possessions with combinations you have not talked with or worked through.”
Altman acknowledged that he is seeking a balance between how long to practice during a week with two games while also noting that the limited roster does not leave much time for players to rest during practice.
“We have got to work through this,” Altman said. “Nobody is going to feel sorry for us.”
The Ducks and Bruins have both fallen from the Top 25 out of any current NCAA Tournament projections. Both teams would likely need to win 14 or 15 conference games to have any shot at making the NCAA field without winning the Pac-12 Tournament.
What once looked like the game of the year in the conference now features two teams listed in the 80s of the NCAA Net rankings after suffering sudden changes and surprising defeats prior to conference play.
“What could have happened? There is nothing you can do about that,” UO sophomore guard Victor Bailey said. “You just have to play basketball and get better every day.”
UCLA starts 7-foot-1 center Moses Brown, who averages 12.2 points and 8.6 rebounds, and 6-9 Chris Smith along with 6-8 wing Kris Wilkes, who leads the team with 17.3 points per game. Jalen Hill and Alex Olesinski, both 6-10, come off the bench with 6-9 Cody Riley.
“I thought we’d match up with them pretty good and now we don’t (without Bol and Wooten),” Altman said. “It will be hard to stay with them on the boards. We have to be physical and everybody has to rebound.”
Oregon is shooting 38.7 percent from the field during its last three games. Freshman Louis King was 6-for-17 against Oregon State after making a total of five shots from the field in his previous two games.
“I would say that I am more confident than I was in the first couple games,” King said. “It is coming back to me and it is going to get much better.”