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Oregon basketball is finally realizing how good it can be

The Ducks stumbled out of the gates, but that’s OK. This is still a team with the talent to play with anyone.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at Oregon Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

PORTLAND — Only 90 seconds have gone off the clock, but Dana Altman is already animated. The seventh-year coach of the Oregon Ducks doesn’t typically wear a jacket, but if he did, it would be off anyway.

His team holds an early 5-0 lead over the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the “Portland Showcase” after Jordan Bell easily flushes home an alley-oop, but Altman wants the intensity higher. Things like hustle, heart, and energy have proven to be the Achilles heel for the Ducks throughout the first month of the season.

That isn’t a problem now.

As Altman paces up and down the sidelines, the Ducks are playing a brand of defense that coaches dream about. The defense eventually forces UNLV into a turnover on the baseline with just one second left on the shot clock, resulting in a quick burst of applause from Altman and a louder cheer from the nearly 10,000 green-and-yellow-clad fans inside the Moda Center on an icy night in Portland.

“I loved our energy and the way we got out defensively,” said Altman after the game. “I thought mixing up our defenses really helped us. We’ve just got to keep grinding away.”

A small lapse in focus, the same kind of lapse that resulted in losses against Baylor and Georgetown (and another near-defeat against Boise State), allowed the Rebels to pull within 37-33 at halftime.

Any notions of a comeback were soon put to bed, however, as Oregon came out of the locker rooms and opened the second half on a 19-3 run. It was all Ducks from that point onward, the team eventually cruising to an 83-63 win over the visitors from Vegas.

* * *

While getting 40 minutes of high-energy basketball has been half of the battle for Altman and his coaching staff, roster turnover and a constant battle with the injury bug has provided some early season headaches, as well.

Gone are big men Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin from last year’s team that made the Elite Eight. Altman, who has made a living through junior college and graduate transfers over the past few seasons, was able to land Gillette College power forward Kavell Bigby-Williams to fill one of those holes.

Bigby-Williams is a raw four who can leap out of the gym, an imposing presence in the post that will block your shot on one end, run the floor, and put you on a poster on the other. He finished Saturday’s game against UNLV tying a season-high with three blocks, a feat he has accomplished on two other occasions this season. His post moves on the offensive end still need some fine-tuning, though, something that will need to be fixed in the coming weeks if he wants to receive crunch time minutes in conference play.

“He has been giving us good minutes,” Altman says. “We ran a little set for him in the first half, something he makes every day in practice, but he went too fast (and missed). We just need to settle him down and play slower.”

The other key newcomer for this team is freshman point guard Payton Pritchard, who was playing at this time last year just outside of Portland at West Linn High School. He has made his presence known immediately, becoming a mainstay in Altman’s starting lineup while averaging 7.7 points and 3.7 assists per game.

That lineup has been in flux throughout the first 12 games of the season.

Junior Dillon Brooks, who led the team in scoring a year ago, underwent surgery on his left foot over the summer and missed the first three games of the season. Not wanting to rush back, Brooks didn’t make his return to the starting lineup until Saturday night.

The return, by all accounts, was a success. Brooks looked sharp from the outset on both ends of the floor, finishing the game with 20 points and three steals.

“I think that set the tone from the jump,” Bell said, when asked about Brooks’ performance. “We had a lot of energy from the start, and that’s just what he does. Having him back in the starting lineup helped us out a lot.”

In a cruel twist of fate for Oregon, Brooks’ transition into the starting five was made easier due to the absence of forward Chris Boucher. The senior came down on Bell’s foot in practice on Thursday, and while X-rays did come back negative, Boucher will miss at least one more game with a severe ankle sprain.

“Nothing is broken in his ankle, but he had a pretty good sprain,” Altman said. “He has sprained it before, so he’s kind of got a feel for it.”

* * *

When at full strength, the Ducks are one of the most gifted and deepest teams in the nation. There’s Boucher and Brooks, who make up an imposing frontcourt, a pair of intriguing newcomers in Bigby-Williams and Pritchard, and a crowd of role players that can carry the team through the dog days of the Pac-12 slate.

Lapses in focus and energy will surely strike again, but the beauty of this Oregon team is that it has the ability to win most every game on its schedule without playing perfect on a regular basis.

Altman left Creighton for Eugene in 2010 and already has six postseason appearances, including one trip to the Sweet 16 and another to the Elite Eight. Now, the pieces are in place for a trip to Glendale and the Final Four come March.

This year’s Ducks haven’t quite lived up to their potential just yet, but no team will want to be on the other side of them when they do.