'We're making progress': Oregon men's basketball opens Pac-12 play against Washington State

Over the last week and a half the depleted Ducks have run a gauntlet of three top-20 teams and a fourth that was in the Final Four last season.

The end result was three losses to one win and a few more additions to a long list of injured players.

Now comes the start of Pac-12 play.

The Oregon men’s basketball team will host Washington State at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the conference opener, followed by a trip to Los Angeles for a game against No. 21 UCLA at 2 p.m. Sunday in Pauley Pavilion.

“The guys, they’re trying,” coach Dana Altman said after Tuesday’s practice in Matthew Knight Arena. “We’re making progress.”

The Ducks (3-4) are coming off their most impressive performance of the season, a 74-67 victory on Sunday against Villanova in the final game of the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland.

Oregon was down to six healthy scholarship players for the game and started walk-on guard Gabe Reichle.

The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Ducks, who lost to No. 1 Houston (66-56) on Nov. 20 at home, then to No. 8 Connecticut (83-59) and No. 20 Michigan State (74-70) in the first two games of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Will Richardson rises to the occasion for the Ducks

Despite a 1-2 record in Portland last week, Oregon saw point guard Will Richardson begin to emerge as the player the Ducks need him to be as they deal with their limited lineup.

Richardson had 28 points, eight assists and five rebounds to almost single-handedly lead Oregon to an upset victory against the Spartans.

The fifth-year senior followed with a 19-point, eight-assist performance against the Wildcats, giving him nearly as many points in the last two games (47) as he had in the first five (49).

“He knew that guys were out and he needed to step up and I thought he did a great job,” Altman said. “There’s no way we would’ve (beaten Villanova) if Will wouldn’t have grabbed the team and said, ‘Hey, we gotta compete here.’ He did a tremendous job.”

Richardson is the Ducks’ leading scorer at 13.7 points per game and is also averaging 4.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds.

“I don’t feel any more pressure,” Richardson said. “I feel we’re all still playing the same roles we had all year. Just trying to compete and defend, play hard, and the offense will come along.”

Senior forward Quincy Guerrier is also coming off his best game of the season as he had 21 points and eight rebounds against Villanova, and was 7-of-13 shooting from the field, including 6-of-10 from the 3-point range.

Ware a one-man show in the post

Leading the way in the post is freshman center Kel’el Ware, who averaged 16 points and 8.3 rebounds and shot 53% from the floor (19 for 36) in the Ducks’ three games at the Phil Knight Invitational.

“He’s done some good things, but there’s still so much more there,” Altman said of Ware. “He knows it, scouts know it, everybody knows it. But you also see when he turns it on, the level he can go to. His challenge has always been to maintain that and do it for longer periods of time. That’s our challenge, to get him to do that.”

Ware’s the only true center the Ducks have at the moment as starter N’Faly Dante (concussion) and reserve Nate Bittle (lower left leg) were injured last Friday against the Spartans.

Altman said Dante is still day to day and could be ready to play Thursday. Bittle watched Tuesday’s practice with a protective boot on his foot.

Transfer guard Brennan Rigsby participated in a full practice Tuesday for the first time this season. “I hope he’ll make a little more progress tomorrow and maybe be able to give us a few minutes," Altman said.

Altman didn’t give an update on guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, who was injured against Houston and hasn’t played since.

Cougars led by sharpshooters

Oregon’s short bench has led to some adjustments, Altman said, most notably its almost exclusive use of a zone defense instead of man-to-man.

That strategy will get tested against Washington State (3-2), which has been the Pac-12’s most potent 3-point shooting team despite playing the fewest number of games of any team in the conference.

The Cougars are making 44.4% of their 3-point attempts (56-for-126) and in their last two games, they’ve made 34-of-59 (58%) in wins against Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy.

They have three players shooting at least 50% from 3-point range: Jabe Mullins, who has made 17-of-30 (57%); TJ Bamba, who has made 13-of-23 (56.5%); and Justin Powell, who has made 14-of-28 (50%).

Bamba averages 16.0 points per game, Mullins 14.2 and Powell 12.2.

Washington State also has a presence in the paint in 6-11 forward Mouhamed Gueye, who is averaging 12.2 points and 7.0 rebounds.

“They’re a really good team and play hard and they’re shooting the ball really well,” Richardson said. “We just have to take care of the things that we can control and be the hardest playing team.”

Oregon Ducks (3-4) vs. Washington State Cougars (3-2)

7:30 p.m. Thursday at Matthew Knight Arena. TV: Pac-12 Networks. Radio: KUJZ-FM (95.3).

Follow Chris Hansen on Twitter @chansen_RG or email at chansen@registerguard.com.

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This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Will Richardson on rise for Oregon men ahead of Pac-12 play