7 p.m. MST
Oregon has learned how weighty expectations can be in college basketball.
A team picked to finish in the group just behind the Pac-12 favorite Arizona Wildcats entered conference play sitting pretty. A top-10 squad that was 13-0 and with decent wins against Illinois and BYU thought highly of itself, but head coach Dana Altman knew the Ducks had their faults, especially on the defensive here.
And here they stand on Thursday with a 3-6 Pac-12 record, ready or not to face a finally-broken and certainly-battered Arizona team at McKale Center.
"We lost a few games and we got rattled," Altman said during this week's Pac-12 teleconference call. "I don't think there's any other way to put it. Our guys lost their heads a little bit."
The Ducks rank sixth in the nation by putting up 84.7 points per game, and Arizona coach Sean Miller called the matchup "the ultimate test" for a proud defense that will look quite different with Brandon Ashley out and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in. Going further than that, it'll be an issue of whether the defense can survive with the likelihood of a three-guard bench unit forced into action, and without anyone other than Kaleb Tarczewski being able act as an imposing shot-blocking threat.
Expect the Wildcats to hang in there mentally. They responded decently at Cal. But there will surely be growing pains in moving on from Ashley's injured foot.
Will Tarczewski get more touches?
Tarczewski became the main target of the Arizona offense that struggled in a loss to California last week. The Wildcats haven't gotten Zeus very many post touches in recent weeks.
He only had four shot attempts in each of three rigid-feeling wins for Arizona leading into the first loss of the year.
"That's been a point with us, even if Brandon were still with us," Miller said of his center. "I feel like sometimes we haven't been as good of a job in getting him the ball. He's the one guy on the team that needs someone to be given him the ball. I think it's in our best interest offensively to get him the ball."
Point guard T.J. McConnell is part of it. When he's been hounded defensively, he's tried to get to the ball out of his hands rather than feed the post -- McConnell went assist-less against Cal. Instead, the ball has found its way into Aaron Gordon's hands. He's gone 9-of-37 (that's 24 percent shooting!!!) in the last three games. Coincidence Tarczewski's production has dropped?
Gordon will get his touches and points on offensive boards. He and Hollis-Jefferson will need to find a rhythm and look for their teammates, and that's especially including Tarczewski.
Breaking down Oregon's O
The Ducks are led by Houston transfer Joseph Young, who considered joining Arizona before picking Altman's squad as a landing spot. The 6'2 junior will be a test for Nick Johnson as an 18-point per game scorer who shoots 39 percent from three and takes more than five long-ball attempts per game.
"One thing that stands out is the tremendous firepower they have offensively, having four three-point shooters on the court and two or three who are prolific," Miller said.
Power forward Mike Moser, who has often started at center, is a 36 percent three-point shooter and another impact transfer averages 13 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Guard Jason Calliste shoots 51.3 percent from deep, Damyean Dotson will provide a slashing presence in an intriguing matchup for Arizona's two starting freshman forwards, and Dominic Artis and Johnathan Lloyd will provide a change-up look from the lead guard spots.
The bad news for Altman is that the Ducks are shooting 41.9 percent in Pac-12 play, second-to-worst in conference.
But they'll take a lot of threes, and the makes will keep them afloat.
The Oregon defense is also giving up a league-worst 47.3 percent shooting to opponents, and the odds aren't with Oregon to improve in that area unless it can somehow keep the Wildcats out of the paint.
They'll likely use a press to disrupt Arizona's offense, but so long as the Wildcats are careful with the ball, they should have opportunities to get back on the winning track at home. What's most interesting following the Ashley injury is whether or not the Wildcats force confidence upon Gabe York and even Jordin Mayes.
If York can find a groove with heavier minutes, Arizona might actually end up developing into a better shooting team, even if Hollis-Jefferson is a down-grade at present.
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