NCAA Tournament

Oregon preparing for a stout defensive challenge in Rhode Island

Oregon’s Kavell Bigby-Williams, left, defends Iona’s Jordan Washington on Friday at Golden 1 Center.
Oregon’s Kavell Bigby-Williams, left, defends Iona’s Jordan Washington on Friday at Golden 1 Center. aseng@sacbee.com

The Oregon basketball team is used to imposing its defensive will in the paint. The Ducks this season ranked second in the country with 6.5 blocks per game.

In the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, though, the third-seeded Ducks will face an opponent almost as prolific in that regard as they are – No. 11 Rhode Island, which averaged 6.0 blocks per game to rank fourth.

The Rams, who upset No. 6 seed Creighton in the opening round, play a hard-nosed style of defense – and present an entirely different challenge to Oregon than its opening-round opponent Iona.

Where Iona was willing to run with the Ducks, Oregon head coach Dana Altman said, he expects Rhode Island to play a slower tempo. The Rams also play a lot of man-to-man defense and pressure hard away from the basket, which they can afford to do with a shot-blocker like forward Hassan Martin guarding the rim.

Oregon had two dominant shot-blockers in Chris Boucher (2.5 per game) and Jordan Bell (2.1) before losing Boucher – a senior and team leader – to a season-ending injury in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Still, junior guard Casey Benson said, going against those teammates in practice for most of the season helped prepare the Ducks for Rhode Island’s paint presence.

“Every day playing with or against Jordan and Chris, you see that,” Benson said Saturday at Golden 1 Center, where the teams practiced ahead of Sunday’s second-round games.

“(Rhode Island is) going to be flying around, and we’ve got to get the best shots possible knowing they’re coming – make plays for each other to get open looks and get drives to the basket.”

Altman complimented Rhode Island, coached by Dan Hurley, as a “well-schooled” team defensively and said the Rams remind him of Pac-12 opponent Arizona.

“Their athleticism is very good; they get out and pressure and are very physical,” Altman said. “I like their depth. They’re playing with tremendous confidence.”

Hurley, meanwhile, said the loss of Boucher defensively for the Ducks is mitigated by the presence of 6-foot-11 junior forward Kavell Bigby-Williams, who averaged nearly a block per game in less than 10 minutes this season.

“They’re a good defensive team, and they’re rugged and they’re tough in a similar way to Arizona in the Pac-12,” Hurley said. “But they’re also dynamic and high-flying. And we’re gritty, resilient and tough. It’s two different types of teams tomorrow.”

Altman alone – It was pointed out to Altman that of the four teams playing in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Golden 1 Center on Sunday, he is the only head coach whose father was not also a coach at some level. The fathers of Hurley, UCLA’s Steve Alford and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin are all longtime high school coaches.

“Well, my dad yelled at me a lot,” Altman said, smiling. “Does that count?”

Altman credited past head coaches he played and worked for with helping develop his own coaching career. Even without the genes Altman has done pretty well: He owns a career .651 winning percentage and has taken his teams to 12 NCAA tournaments.

UCLA – Alford said Lonzo Ball, the Bruins’ star freshman point guard, responded well after landing hard on his right hip just before halftime Friday night against Kent State.

“It wasn’t a nasty fall, watching it on tape,” Alford said. “He’s had a great day today, and I think he will be close to 100 percent (Sunday).

Alford also said he expects freshman center Ike Anigbogu to be available Sunday for the third-seeded Bruins against No. 6 Cincinnati after missing Friday’s game with a sprained left foot.

Cincinnati – All four head coaches were asked Saturday about preparing in a short span for an unfamiliar opponent, but the best response belonged to Cronin.

“Sleep is overrated this time of year,” the Bearcats’ coach said.

“College coaches, we were all the kind of guys that probably had to cram anyway back in our college days. We probably weren’t the best, most prepared students.”

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