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Monday, December 16, 2013
Ducks make suspensions forgettable

By Eamonn Brennan

For most, it was just another drive-by example of quintessential NCAA silliness: two players selling their own school-provided Nike basketball shoes for the exact same reason (ahem: money) that Oregon can provide such nice new Nike basketball shoes in the first place.

But when Dominic Artis and Ben Carter were suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the Ducks' season, it was something far more tangible in Eugene. It meant beginning a season already defined by turnover and transfers without two rising sophomores, the best of which (Artis) was a crucial cog in Oregon's backcourt a season ago. It was a real thing: Two players whose not-terribly-smart decision made their coach and teammates' lives considerably harder.

And then, just as soon as the season started, it was forgotten. Credit the volume of targets for NCAA criticism. Credit the roving-horde outrage industry that makes up approximately 65 percent of the Internet these days. ("Twerking? Dennis Rodman? 'Affluence?' LOUD NOISES!")

But it has much more to do with the simple fact of Oregon's success. Despite losing Artis and Carter to a nine-game suspension, Dana Altman's team went ahead and started 9-0 anyway -- the latest victory coming Saturday night at Illinois.

Markel Starks and Mike Moser
UNLV transfer Mike Moser (left) has helped Oregon start 9-0 despite the nine-game suspensions to Dominic Artis and Ben Carter.
Forget the suspensions: This is an accomplishment in and of itself. No coach, save Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, has done more to immediately blend transfers than Altman. This season it's former UNLV star Mike Moser and would-be Houston progeny Joseph Young as the featured newcomers. Both have shot past already high preseason expectations.

Young is probably the player of the year favorite in the Pac-12 right now, a searing and incisive scoring guard shooting 47.5 percent from 3, 58.3 percent from 2 and 81 percent from the line. Young's offensive rating (141.1) is off the charts in 22 percent usage, he almost never turns the ball over and he's managed to draw fouls at a higher rate (6.0 per 40 minutes) than ever in his career.

Moser, meanwhile, has rediscovered what made him so enticing as a sophomore at UNLV in 2011-12, before 2012-13's productivity cliff dive. Moser looks more engaged, to be sure, and there are any number of possible explanations -- fuzzy things about a change of scenery or the attention afforded Anthony Bennett last season at UNLV. But the key difference in Moser's game is shot selection: He is forcing far fewer awkward midrange jump shots than he did a year ago and making more 3s than ever before. And his rebounding is crucial for a team that doesn't have much in the way of "true" post players.

Meanwhile, senior guard Johnathan Loyd has been a revelation. In Artis' absence, Loyd's assist rate is 42.5 percent, sixth highest in the country; he's shooting 45.5 percent from 3 (compared to 31 percent a year ago); and his offensive rating hockey-sticked to 135.4 from last season's 89.3. Those are all insane, unsustainable numbers, but they've held on for nine games, and their sheer existence in the first place will allow Altman to work Artis and Carter into the rotation gradually.

All of which is to say: Those nine-game suspensions are over. Artis and Carter are free to rejoin their teammates on the floor, beginning Tuesday night at home versus UC-Irvine. Artis' quickness and perimeter defense will be an immediate asset even if his offense hasn't progressed much and Carter's 6-foot-8 size is exactly what the Ducks need. Oh, and 6-foot-7 freshman Jordan Bell, now admitted after a trimester in partial-qualifier purgatory, could join the team, too. (He could also redshirt.)

Point is, the same Ducks that began the season 9-0 (with impressive-enough wins over Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois, all away from their home court) are getting deeper on the perimeter and bigger on the block, which is exactly what they needed. They're going to be good.

On Tuesday night, the shoe sale mini-scandal will officially, legally become a matter of the past. It is to Oregon's credit that it felt that way already.