The Fast Break: On N'Faly Dante's return, the OSU women's turnaround and Josiah Lake's dream
Welcome to our new weekly basketball series, The Fast Break.
Editor’s note: I just wanted to thank everyone for the overwhelming response to yesterday’s post. The support means everything to this publication and allows us to expand some features, such as this new weekly basketball notebook from Shane Hoffmann, The Fast Break.
Thank you, again.
Leave it to Dana Altman to nitpick. That’s just who the Ducks’ head man is. It’s what he does best. And really, it’s that sort of leave-no-stone-unturned approach that might one day land him in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
But boy, does he shoot straight. Ever one to temper expectations, that Altman.
N’Faly Dante returned to Oregon’s lineup in a 80-73 win over Cal Saturday night. The all-conference center hadn’t played since the Ducks’ season opener on Nov. 6, rehabilitating a knee injury for the last two-and-a-half months. Dante scored eight points, hauled in a pair of rebounds, blocked a shot, and threw down a monstrous dunk in 17 minutes.
Dana, your thoughts?
“Obviously his conditioning is not very good,” the coach said postgame.
“We don't move for him. We throw it to him and everybody’s just used to him just scoring and we all stood and watched. We put him in really bad spots.”
And those bad spots resulted in bad shots, Altman lamenting a trio of jumpers which Dante — not known for his ability to score outside of the paint — settled for throughout the evening.
But hey, Dante’s back and that’s the bottom line. And even if his outing against Cal wasn’t quite the tour-de-force that his 16-point, 21-rebound season opener was, his mere presence is a welcomed sight for a Ducks team (13-3, 5-0 Pac-12) who has brilliantly weathered a rash of early-season injuries.
Back to Altman. As he observed, and later made note of, working a marquee player back into a rotation that’s won six in a row and nine of their last 10 games is tricky, no matter his physical profile or skill set.
There’s an argument to be made, in fact, that it’s just as demanding as patching up an ailing, undermanned lineup, something Altman’s got plenty of experience with, much to his chagrin. Sophomore guard Brennan Rigsby alluded to as much after practice last week, before saying: “But that’s just basketball,” adding that, “He’s an all-American. Having one of the best players in the country on your team helps.”
As for where, specifically, it should help? Well, the Ducks finally have a rim protector and true rebounding presence inside. Freshman Kwame Evans Jr. has done admirably as a de facto small-ball center, but with the flashes have come moments of physical immaturity.
“Playing small ball around Dante is different than playing small ball around KJ,” Altman told reporters last week.
Offensively, Dante’s ability to, at minimum, draw attention, if not outright dominate the painted area could take Oregon — No. 35 nationally in adjusted offense, according to KenPom — into another stratosphere, given this group’s proficiency from beyond the arc.
It will take some real time for Dante to become an organic fit in this rotation again.
Dante makes the Ducks better.
Both of the above statements can be true, and it should make for an intriguing subplot as the Ducks head out on their Mountain road trip later this week.
I sat down with Scott Rueck in his office in November.
The Oregon State women’s basketball head coach and I talked for 40-some minutes about the changes surrounding the university, how he stays fresh with the clipboard in hand and the trajectory of the Beavers’ program since he took the reins.
The biggest scars the pandemic left on his program, he said, were in its hampering of his ability to maintain culture that had lifted up a Pac-12 bottom-feeder and transformed it into a March mainstay. But when the cloud of Covid-19 finally began to part, the Beavers just weren’t what they had been, in all senses. They’d missed March Madness in back-to-back seasons. It was disenchanting to players, Rueck said, and he didn’t blame them one bit as some transferred out.
Then he told me that things felt different this year. That the culture seemed enlivened and everything was starting to feel normal again.
“This feels like, ‘Here we go’ mode,” he said.