Oregon stakes its claim to title of Pac-12 favorite with win at UCLA

LOS ANGELES — They're in first place in the Pac-12. They've won seven games in a row. They've beaten both Arizona and UCLA.

About the only people still not ready to anoint Oregon as league favorites after Saturday's 76-67 road win over the Bruins were the happy but humble Ducks themselves.

"We still have 13 games and the conference tournament left," protested forward Arsalan Kazemi.

"We know anything can happen any given night, argued forward E.J. Singler.

"It's way too early," coach Dana Altman insisted. "We've got to get at least half way through the conference season before we have any idea where we're at."

If Oregon isn't ready to embrace its status as a Pac-12 title threat, let the evidence speak for itself.

A Ducks team projected seventh in the Pac-12 to start the season and viewed as merely a fringe contender as recently as a few weeks ago is suddenly 16-2 overall, 5-0 in conference and done with preseason favorites Arizona and UCLA for the rest of the regular season. The only other unbeaten team in conference play is Washington, which has yet to face any of the Pac-12 favorites yet.

Oregon certainly performed like a league title contender in the second half Saturday, controlling the offensive glass, decimating UCLA's defense with dribble penetration and mixing in full-court pressure to stymie the Bruins' high-octane attack.

Unable to contain UCLA's transition offense during the first half, the Ducks surged into the lead midway through the second half by turning the Bruins into a jump shooting team and holding them scoreless for more than five minutes. Then the Ducks finished off the victory with a timely response after the Bruins closed to within one with 3:30 to go.

Kazemi scored on a tip-in to increase the lead to three after UCLA's Kyle Anderson left him to keep a penetrating Johnathan Loyd from an open layup. Damyean Dotson drove around a ball screen, drew a foul on Travis Wear and sank two foul shots. And center Tony Woods extended the lead to an insurmountable nine with a pair of dunks, four of his game-high 18 points on 8 of 9 shooting from the field.

"Our game plan was to attack them off the dribble because (the coaches) told us they couldn't move their feet really well," Kazemi said. "The coaches were on us at halftime because we weren't stopping anything and they just kept on getting layups. "We were more defensive-minded in the second half and that made the difference."

What makes Oregon's ascension this season a surprise is the Ducks lost three of their four leading scorers from last year's NIT team. Between highly touted freshman guard Jabari Brown transferring two games into last season and starting guards Devoe Joseph and Garrett Sim and top big man Olu Ashualo all graduating, Altman and his staff had to rebuild the roster on the fly.

They nabbed their point guard of the present and future in Oct. 2011 when Oakland native Dominic Artis chose Oregon over UCLA because he feared the Bruins would run their offense through Kyle Anderson and play him off ball. They added an impact wing barely a week later when Dotson opted to head west instead of playing for in-state Baylor or Texas Tech. And they bolstered a frontcourt that already included Singler, Woods and junior college transfer Carlos Emory, adding 6-foot-11 Waverly Austin in September when he failed to qualify academically for South Florida and Kazemi when the all-Conference USA forward transferred from Rice a few weeks later.

The result of Altman's rapid reload is a roster with the balance for five players to average between 10 an 12 points and the quickness and athleticism to thrive in transition. Oregon plays at the fastest tempo of any team in the Pac-12, forces a league-best 16.2 turnovers per game and dominates the offensive glass.

Altman admits he wasn't sure a roster with so many newcomers playing key roles would mesh quickly enough for Oregon to contend in the Pac-12. But once Singler and Kazemi recovered from preseason injuries and returned to practice in November, Altman said the Ducks gradually started clicking.

"I didn't know how the freshmen would come along and I didn't know how everyone would blend, but after we got going, I found it was a really coachable bunch," Altman said. "For the most part, they try to listen and they've made tremendous progress. If you saw us play early to where we're at now, we're two totally different teams."

Altman may not have been ready to call his team the Pac-12's best, but UCLA came away impressed with Oregon. Asked if the Ducks deserve to be viewed as Pac-12 favorites now, UCLA forward Travis Wear didn't hesitate.

"I'd say so," Wear said. "They have all the pieces of a championship-level team. Everyone's chasing them right now."