N’Faly Dante again providing a presence for Oregon men’s basketball, who open Pac-12 play Sunday

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Oregon opened the season playing a small-ball starting lineup that included three guards and no center.

But now the Ducks have their big man back.

N’Faly Dante’s return to the starting lineup came two games ago, as the 6-11 junior continues to get eased into more and more playing time following his nearly year-long recovery from major surgery on his left knee.

He’s expected to start again Sunday when Oregon (5-3) opens its Pac-12 season against Arizona State (2-6) in a 4 p.m. game at Matthew Knight Arena.

In his two starts — Oregon wins against Montana and UC Riverside — Dante averaged 11.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.0 block and made a combined 8-of-10 from the field.

In a close finish against the Highlanders on Wednesday, he had a few key defensive rebounds in the final minutes to help preserve a 71-65 victory.

Free-throw shooting is one of the few things Dante has struggled with, as he made 7-of-15 attempts in his two starts and is 10-for-23 from the line for the season.

“That’s OK, he’ll come along on the free throws. I’m not worried about that,” senior forward Eric Williams Jr. said. “His presence really helps us. I know we try to go small ball sometimes, but having him in really is a key for us. Having a big man in and being able to throw the ball into the paint is key for our team because inside-out is helpful more than just guards having to rely on taking a crazy shot.”

Overall, Dante has played in six games since his return on Nov. 16 against BYU and is averaging 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds and shooting 73.9% from the field.

Coach Dana Altman said he wants to keep Dante close to 20 minutes per game, though he did play a season-high 22 minutes against UC Riverside.

“He’s lost a little of his mobility,” Altman said. “He’s not moving his feet as quick as he used to. He and (Franck Kepnang) both, they gotta be more mobile.”

Altman also wants to see more defensive production from Dante, as well as Kepnang, the primary reserve at center who also has a pair of starts this season.

The Highlanders scored 42 points in the paint during Wednesday’s game and Oregon had only one block. The Ducks also were outrebounded 26-25.

“If we’re going to play big, we’ve got to change some things at the rim,” Altman said. “Our other guys have got to fight to the dribble a heckuva lot better – I’m not letting them off the hook – but we’ve got to have some better rim protection. That’s always been a big part.”

The Ducks for sure feel better about themselves heading into Sunday’s game having put together back-to-back wins at home, where they’re 4-0 this season. A week ago they were in a 1-3 stretch with a pair of losses to BYU and Houston in which Oregon wasn’t even competitive.

The Sun Devils, who have lost five straight, would like to snap out of their funk against the Ducks.

Arizona State lost its Pac-12 opener to Washington State on Wednesday, 51-29. According to SunDevilSource.com, which is the team’s 247Sports.com affiliate, it was the fewest points scored by Arizona State since the 1945-46 season.

The Sun Devils also are off to their worst start since opening 0-8 in 1969-70.

Still, Altman said his team has no reason to be overconfident come Sunday.

“If they’re going to look at scores, all they have to do is look at some of ours,” Altman said. “We have a long ways to go and we’re going to have to get ready for everybody.”

Source : Register guard

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