By Liam Baker
EUGENE, Ore. — After a strong start to the season which saw the Ducks (4-2) win their first four games by 10+ points, they lost both games in the Emerald Coast Classic and now take on the Michigan Wolverines (4-3) at Matthew Knight Arena. The two-game losing streak can partially be attributed to the Ducks being without two of their best players. Centers Nate Bittle and N’Faly Dante have missed the last three games. Dante has only played in the season opener and both players underwent successful surgeries this past week. Dante will be re-evaluated in a month and Bittle in two. Freshman Mookie Cook is also still out with an ankle injury. One bright spot for the Ducks over the past two games is that freshman Jackson Sheldstad made his collegiate debut. He scored eight points off the bench against Santa Clara and 10 against Alabama. For the Wolverines, they are looking to break a skid of their own. After starting 3-0 they have lost three of their past four. This is a huge game for both programs and a win could prove important when comparing resumes come March.
Saturday’s game against the Ducks will be their fourth straight on the road after going 1-2 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. They are led by the duo of sophomore guard Dug McDaniel and graduate transfer forward Olivier Nkamboua. McDaniel has scored in double figures every game this season and averages 18.4 points per game and Nkamboua has scored 15+ in six of seven games while also pulling down over seven rebounds per game. Unlike the Ducks, who have had four different starting lineups over the first six games, the Wolverines have rolled out the same starting five each game this season. The other starters include guard Nimari Burnett and forwards Terrance Williams II and Tarris Reed Jr. Also, the Wolverines only have two men playing substantial minutes off the bench so expect all starters to log heavy minutes. Expect the Wolverines to put up a lot of points on Saturday. They have scored over eighty points in five of their seven contests and shoot the ball at 49.8% from the field — which is 26th in the country. Despite shooting well from the field, they are one of the worst free-throw-shooting teams in the country. They only shoot about 18 free throws per game but when they do get to the line they convert only 65.1% of attempts, which ranks them 300th out of 351 teams in Division 1.
With Dante and Bittle out for some time, the Oregon backcourt must step up offensively. Senior guard trio Jermaine Couisnard, Keeshawn Barthelemy and Jesse Zarzuela have started every game they have played and have begun to find their shot. They combined for 41 points on 17-28 shooting the last time out and will need to continue to put up similar numbers if the Ducks are to have success on Saturday and the rest of the season. A player that will be key for the Ducks on Saturday is freshman forward Kwame Evans Jr. The freshman was thrust into a starting role when Dante went down with an injury but has struggled to shoot the ball and stay out of foul trouble. He will have his hands full with a taller and more experienced frontcourt of Michigan. The Ducks are already thin at the forward position and need a strong game out of Evans Jr. as well as senior center Mahamadou Diawara, who has played well in limited action. Like the Wolverines, the Ducks lack the ability to consistently make free throws. Their 60.5% mark brings them in at 334th in the country. One area where the Ducks thrive is ball handling. They are 16th in the country in turnovers per game at 9.3 and 37th in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.52, highlighted by a 13 assists to two turnovers performance against Montana earlier this year.
I expect a close, hard-fought game between two teams that are listed in the “First Four Teams Out” on the last ESPN Bracketology albeit early in the season. Oregon has played well at home this season and that should continue. Strong guard play and a breakout game by freshman Jackson Sheldstad will give the Ducks a narrow victory.
Ducks 75, Wolverines 72