PHOENIX Oregon has been the early surprise of the Pac-12. The Ducks have had no bad losses this season, already have won three conference road games and are getting strong veteran leadership from E.J. Singler and Garret Sim.
From now on, Kyle Singler should be referred to as E.J.s brother, not the other way around, as it was when Kyle starred for Duke.
The biggest single reason for Oregons improvement, however, is the influx of veteran transfers in coach Dana Altmans second season in Eugene.
While many of the Pac-12 teams lost key 2011 contributors through graduation or the NBA draft, the Ducks have gotten a lot of mileage from seniors Olu Ashaolu, Devoe Joseph and junior Tony Woods, all in their first season after sitting out last year.
Theyve added talent, and it is unique because it is old talent, Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
Oregons newcomers are the kind of players who aren't fazed by a raucous road environment, as Miller saw first-hand last weekend when the Ducks hung on to beat Arizona 59-57 on Saturday afternoon to complete their first road sweep of the Arizona schools in 34 years.
Oregon scored the final five points Singler hit a mid-range jumper, rebounded an Arizona miss, then fed Sim for a tie-breaking three-pointer with 1:48 remaining for a 59-56 lead. The Wildcats missed three threes down in the final 40 seconds, one of which was blocked by Sim as Woods also loomed, before Kyle Foggs 13-footer hit the rim, but rolled right at the buzzer.
It was so silent you could have heard a cactus drop after the game, and the Ducks (13-5, 4-2) have been there before. They've also won at Arizona State and Washington State, with a loss at home to conference favorite California.
The Ducks are a team in the true sense. The steady Singler had a career-high seven assists at Arizona and 12 over the weekend. Singler, Joseph, Sim and Ashaolu all averaged double-figures in scoring in the sweep. Joseph had seven assists in the two games and four steals against Arizona.
Altmans players know their roles, even if some of them learned elsewhere.
--Joseph, a 6-foot-4 guard, is the leading scorer, averaging 14.9 points a game after becoming eligible the second week of December following his transfer from Tubby Smiths program at Minnesota. While he had a tendency to go one-on-one at times, he has the quickness to get his own shot.
--Ashaolu, a 6-foot-7 banger, isn't afraid to throw his weight around on the low block, and he was the spark that lifted the Ducks to a 17-point lead over Arizona early in the second half Saturday. Ashaolu, who has taken well to his sixth man role after starting seven games earlier in the season, had 13 points, five rebounds and two steals in 18 minutes, exposing the small UA frontline. He was an All-WAC performer at Louisiana Tech last year and was immediately eligible at Oregon because he had finished his degree work. (Similar to Wisconsin's Rose Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson.)
--Woods, a 6-foot-11 center, doesn't have a stat line that radiates, but he's the best interior defender in the Pac-12. He had six blocked shots in the Arizona sweep and scored 12 points against Arizona State, which didn't have an answer inside. Woods started his career at Wake Forest and played in all 31 games in 2008-09, starting nine.
Devoe Joseph is poised after playing all those games in the Big 10. Olu, ditto, Miller said.
Tony Woods makes a big difference around the basket. A lot of the shots against Oregon are different now.
It was just the infusion to arm Oregon for a run at the top of the Pac-12. With non-conference losses to Vanderbilt, Virginia and BYU, the Ducks are building a resume fit for the postseason.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
The Arizona schools will make their first visit to the really high country with games at Utah and Colorado this week. Tucson (elevation 2,389 feet) is no longer the highest city in the Pac-12, and it isn't even close. Boulder, Colo., which is at the base of the Rockies, is 5,430. Salt Lake City, nestled in the Wasatch range, measures 4,327 feet above sea level.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team lost by 20 at Colorado two weeks ago, said he noticed the effects of altitude during his time as a player, and there's no question it is a factor.
Its not a huge factor, but you run out of breath quicker, said ASU guard Chanse Creekmur, who had a career-high 24 points in a victory over Oregon State on Saturday.
With leading scorer Trent Lockett to miss the weekend games with a sprained right ankle, ASU will face the high-altitude challenge with seven scholarship players. How will coach Herb Sendek manage the playing time?
We cant, he said, adding that if anyone asks out of the game, Im going to pretend the altitude has blocked my hearing. Thats all we have. The hell with it.