On Tuesday night, two undefeated top 15 teams will face off in Portland, Oregon for the inaugural Phil Knight invitational.
Both Memphis (#14) and Oregon (#15) entered the season with highly touted recruits and re-tooled rosters. Memphis owns the #1 recruiting class for 2019 while Oregon is close behind with the #4 overall recruiting class.
Coach Dana Altman for the Oregon Ducks brings back a roster that only returns 31% of the scoring from his Sweet 16 team last year. Likewise, Penny Hardaway of Memphis will have a completely unrecognizable group of players in his second year at the helm with the primary exceptions of local Memphis guards Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris.
I’ve had this matchup circled on my calendar for a long time, but it was escalated to one of the more exciting potential games of the season when 5-star big man N’Fale Dante re-classified and committed to Oregon this summer. Top NBA prospect James Wiseman for Memphis going heads up against Dante is the stuff that college hoops fans live for. However, we won’t be witnessing that particular matchup as Dante is ineligible due to a NCAA clearance issue for the first 9 games of the Ducks’ season and won’t be able to enroll until December 14th.
It’s ironic that James Wiseman’s eligibility is under intense scrutiny at this point as well. If you want to know more about that, a quick Google search will keep you busy for hours. For now, let’s focus on the task at hand.
Even though we won’t get to see two potential lottery picks duke it out down low, we will still be in for a basketball treat.
Leading the Ducks is senior guard Payton Pritchard, who is a quintessential college guard and one of the few staples on this remade roster. Pritchard led Oregon in assists last year and through two games is leading the Ducks in scoring as well as assists, putting up 21p/6r/7a so far. On Saturday he passed notable Duck Luke Ridnour for 3rd in the Oregon all-time assists rankings.
Though new to the Ducks, transfers Shakur Johnson (UNLV), Anthony Mathis (New Mexico State), and JUCO player of the year Chris Duarte bring years of experience that help add an element of proficiency to a list of talented freshmen.
In addition to Dante, who I view as the prize of Altman’s recruiting class, 5-star forward CJ Walker brings athleticism and shot blocking ability with his 6”8” frame. Though he has not seen many minutes yet, Walker drew the start on Saturday against Boise State because sophomore forward Francis Okoro was Okoro hit by car and is questionable for Tuesday night. Memphis was a school that Walker was strongly considering attending and made his cut lists down to the end.
Another freshman to keep an eye on is Chandler Lawson, from Memphis. Yes, he is related to the other Lawsons and, yes, that makes him the cousin of Memphis forward DJ Jeffries. Lawson is averaging nearly 20 minutes per game through a pair of contests and was rated as a top 100 player out of Wooddale High School.
With Dante out of the picture, Memphis should have the advantage down low between Wiseman, 5-star forward Precious Achiuwa, and Lousiville transfer Lance Thomas.
Wiseman himself is averaging 20p/10r/4b while shooting an incredible 83% from the field. That’s what you can do when most of your shots are dunks. The threat of getting slammed on has lead teams to foul him consistently – he has shot 21 free throws so far, hitting 15. With Wiseman anchoring the paint, the Tigers are second in the nation in blocked shots.
As a team, Memphis is shooting field goals at a clip of 56.7%, good enough for a top 10 ranking in the country. Oregon is also extremely efficient from the field, shooting 55.8%. Through the early part of their schedule, it should be noted that both of these teams have a strength of schedule that ranks in the bottom thirty in the country, which makes some results hard to project to the big stage.
Many times, college basketball victories are decided by guard play, and the more experienced team in that area can oftentimes prevail. With their plethora of quality transfers plus the native Oregonian Pritchard, the Ducks have a backcourt that many coaches would be jealous of. Against Boise State, Anthony Mathis put up a 30 piece on 9 of 11 shooting from beyond the arc. Not to be outdone, Memphis has several guards who are capable of putting up those types of numbers on any given night.
Former Duke commit Boogie Ellis has hit 7 of his 13 three points attempts this season while DJ Jeffries and Damion Baugh are also shooting 50% or better, albeit on fewer attempts.
Don’t forget that the Tigers are returning their most lethal shooter from last year in Tyler Harris, who will help anchor the second unit with fellow Memphians DJ Jeffries and Alex Lomax.
Zak (@BarnBurnerBro) is a native Memphian who covers the Memphis Grizzlies, Tigers, and St. Louis Cardinals for The Barn. He spends his free time exploring breweries, restaurants, and leading the Ivan Rabb stan club.