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For Ducks, basketball takes back seat to finals

EUGENE — The only tests this week for the Oregon men’s basketball team will come off the court.

“We’ve got finals, so we have to take care of that,” freshman guard Payton Pritchard said. “Then get back in the gym and work on some of our weaknesses and get ready.”

With eight days between games, coach Dana Altman will let his players focus on academics at the start of finals week.

“This week is really important academically for guys to finish things up,” he said. “It is a really busy week and we will try to squeeze some practices in. I know we will practice Friday and Saturday to get ready for a game Sunday, but this week we will do some individual work and get them together a couple of times.”

Once exams are over, the Ducks have a month-long holiday break from classes.

“The next three or four weeks are really important for this team,” Altman said. “We have to get so much better in so many areas. We only have four games before conference. Alabama is up next and then we have one day before Montana and then UNLV in Portland before we come back and play Fresno State. We will give them four days off for Christmas and then it is conference time.”

Pac-12 play begins at home on Dec. 28 against No. 2 UCLA, which has emerged as the top-ranked team in the conference at 9-0 after a 97-92 win at then-No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday.

“Our league needed a big win like that,” Altman said. “I’m happy for those guys going to Kentucky and beating the No. 1 team. UCLA is playing great. They are holding up the league and that is a tremendous win for them, but it also helps all of us in the league.”

Oregon (7-2) will take a five-game winning streak into a 3 p.m start Sunday at Matthew Knight Arena against Alabama (4-3), which is also off this week after losing 77-68 at Texas on Friday.

The Ducks dropped one spot to No. 24 in the Associated Press poll on Monday despite beating Boise State, Western Oregon and Savannah State last week.

“I thought we did make some progress during the week,” Altman said. “We needed a couple games to get everyone on the floor and get some guys comfortable playing in front of people. We are having a hard time blending Kavell and Keith in and getting it smooth. I want to continue to work on that. We have to get everyone comfortable playing with each other. We don’t have that flow we hoped we’d have at this time, so it is a work in progress.”

Junior-college transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams and freshman Keith Smith got extended minutes in the last two games as Oregon blew out Western Oregon and Savannah State with a total margin of 108 points.

The 6-foot-11 Bigby-Williams got the start against WOU and had five points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. He matched his season high with 24 minutes against Savannah State and had season highs with 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Smith was averaging fewer than six minutes per game in the first seven contests before playing 20 minutes against WOU and 17 against Savannah State. He had season highs of 15 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks against the Tigers.

“He had a slow start with some turnovers, but the last eight or nine minutes were better,” Altman said. “He had a couple assists and got to the rim and got some tip-ins. It will come. He has to keep working in practice, and he’s got to give us a few minutes here and there.”

Smith, Pritchard, Bigby-Williams and senior point guard Dylan Ennis are the new additions this year after Oregon’s run to the Elite Eight last season.

“We have to get in a rhythm and get used to guys,” junior forward Dillon Brooks said. “We have not played with Payton or Kavell and we are trying to mix in and see what different lineups we can have and what lineups work. A lot of them worked, and coach has to play with it. Like I said my freshman year, he’s like a master at this game. He places different pieces anywhere and lets it go and somehow it works. We want to play hard for him and keep our roll going.”

Oregon coach Dana Altman shouts to his team in the second half against Georgetown in Maui in November. RICK BOWMER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS