Here are some things to watch for, along with links to our coverage from earlier in the week.
What’s at stake
Who would have thought coming into this season that Arizona, the program in a supposed transition year, would start 4-0 in conference play while Oregon, the preseason favorite, would be limping in at 1-2?
There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but the Wildcats can take a 3.5 game lead over Oregon with a victory Thursday, asserting themselves as the team to beat in the Pac-12 while strengthening their NCAA Tournament resume.
At the same time, Oregon can reestablish itself as a conference championship contender with a strong weekend against the Arizona schools.
It would be remiss to talk about the Ducks without mentioning the absence of star freshman Bol Bol. The 7-foot-2 giant was averaging 21.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game before suffering a season-ending foot injury in mid-December.
The craziest stat? Bol was 13 for 25 from 3, capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. He will surely be a top-10 NBA Draft pick come June.
“That would be no different than Lauri Markkanen or someone like Deandre (Ayton) having a season-ending injury,” said UA coach Sean Miller.
The Ducks were 6-3 when Bol was healthy and are 4-3 without him, having to revamp their game plan on both ends of the court.
To make matters worse, Oregon has been without its other shot-blocking big man, Kenny Wooten, since Dec. 21 due to a broken jaw. And before that, the Ducks were without five-star freshman Louis King for the first seven games of the season as he recovered from a knee injury he suffered in high school.
So while the Ducks have not lived up to expectations this season, they have a good reason for it.
“They’ve really been hit as hard as a team can be hit with injury,” Miller said. “So it’s hard to judge them.”
Wooten may be back?
Wooten is getting close to a return, but is unlikely to play Thursday against the Wildcats, according to a report from Steve Mims of the Eugene Register-Guard.
The 6-foot-9 Wooten has been fitted for a face mask, which he is wearing in workouts and drills, but has not been cleared for game action.
Oregon coach Dana Altman did not rule Wooten out entirely for Thursday’s game, though, so perhaps he will take the court anyway — or maybe he is just trying to keep the Wildcats guessing.
Without Wooten and Bol, the Ducks use smaller lineups that thrive by creating ball pressure. Oregon, which has the second-best defense in the Pac-12 behind Arizona, has posted the highest opponent turnover percentage in the conference since league play started (24.0).
“They are trapping, full-court pressing, creating a ton of turnovers,” Miller said. “(Altman) has his team playing as hard as any team in our conference. I personally believe they’re the hardest playing team right now in the Pac-12.”
The Ducks aren’t quite as strong offensively, ranking 69th in efficiency per KenPom, but Miller thinks some of their smaller lineups could be difficult to guard, specifically mentioning one in which King and Paul White, two 6-foot-9 forwards, man the frontcourt.
Both are able to shoot 3s and drive to the rim. White, a transfer from Georgetown, is averaging 13.6 points per game since Bol and Wooten got injured.
“Offensively when that lineup is in, it’s very very difficult and they create a lot of mismatches,” Miller said. “And that’s something that we have to be ready for, and easier said than done, but that’s a lineup that we have to make sure that we don’t let beat us.”
Since Emmanuel Akot is no longer with the Wildcats, Miller mentioned Dylan Smith as someone who can play the 4 against those smaller lineups, his length and mobility coming in handy.
“He’s already done that more than you realize,” Miller said. “He did it this weekend some (against Stanford and Cal) and that’s the role right now that we’re really trying in practice to make him more familiar with.”
The keys to the game, Miller said, are limiting turnovers and controlling the defensive glass.
Thus, an Oregon player to watch is Ehab Amin. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Arizona was linked to him after he announced his decision to grad-transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last spring.
Amin does not do much offensively, but he is 13th in the country in steal percentage and has swiped 11 steals over the last four games.
The other freshman
Bol grabs the headlines when talking about Oregon’s 2018 recruiting class, but King is coming into his own of late.
The freshman from Jersey City is averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds since Pac-12 play began, shooting 48 percent from the the field and 41 percent from 3.
“He’s settling in a lot like Brandon Williams on our end,” Miller said. “These guys get into the month of January and they start to really find out what to do and how to do it.”
Williams is 21 for 44 (47.7%) from the field his last five games, and 5 of his last 7 from 3-point range after a 2 of 14 stretch.
Both squads are short on players. The Wildcats lost Akot to transfer this week, thinning their frontcourt, while Oregon has a litany of injuries and lost Abu Kigab to transfer. As a result, the Ducks have only had eight scholarship players for the past four games.
So fatigue and foul trouble loom large in this game.
Since Akot is no longer with the Arizona program, the Wildcats will have to adjust accordingly without much time to prepare.
Based on what Miller said Tuesday, Ryan Luther will be inserted into the starting lineup, while Ira Lee while get more minutes at the 4, spending more time sharing the frontcourt with Chase Jeter (which Miller said was going to be the plan anyway).
And then, as mentioned earlier, the 6-foot-5 Smith will now be the guy UA turns to when opponents use an athletic wing like King at the 4.
For more on this, check out Brian Pedersen’s analysis from Tuesday.
Other pregame links
- Justin Coleman ‘hitting his stride’ despite shoulder injury
- Free throw shooting, better shot selection key to Arizona’s offensive improvement
- On the rise: Arizona climbing in computer rankings, bracket projections
- Assessing Arizona’s scholarship situation after Emmanuel Akot’s departure
- Arizona reaches out to Santa Clara grad transfer KJ Feagin, per report