The No. 24 Arizona Wildcats will begin their first, and longest, Pac-12 road trip this season when they travel to Eugene on Thursday to face the No. 9 Oregon Ducks.
Arizona (11-3, 1-0 Pac-12) opened conference play with a 28-point home win over ASU last Saturday. The Ducks (12-3, 1-1) split the Rocky Mountain road trip, falling to Colorado before escaping with a narrow victory at Utah.
Oregon has won three straight against Arizona. Thursday’s rematch is set for 7 p.m. MST on ESPN.
Here are some things to watch for.
A lot of new faces
Not unlike Arizona, which is breaking in eight new players and three new starters, the Ducks only returned three players from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad—point guard Payton Pritchard, wing Will Richardson, and big man Francis Okoro.
Still, Oregon continues to roll anyway, currently ranking as KenPom’s No. 17 team, with the No. 7 offense and No. 66 defense in the country.
While the players have changed, Oregon’s defensive philosophy remains mostly the same.
“They press and drop to a matchup zone and they mix in their full-court pressure, they can play man-to-man,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller. “They seem to do that at some point each game and they really try to protect the rim and create turnovers. This year, they’re not creating as many turnovers but they also have more size.”
That’s good because Arizona has been careless with the ball against the Ducks lately. The Wildcats averaged 14.5 turnovers against them last year and 17 the year before.
Arizona’s offense is 23rd in the country in turnover percentage this year, a very solid mark, but has had stretches where the giveaways pile up, particularly in transition.
“It’s kind of a head-scratching team with that,” Miller said a couple weeks ago.
The Ducks are capable of switching defenses at any time, even during possessions, so it will be a good test to see if Nico Mannion and company can stay composed and create good shots. Oregon plays at one of the slowest paces in the country, so any mistakes will be magnified.
Arizona’s offense, despite ranking 13th in the country, has struggled mightily against quality teams this season, and we know about its longstanding woes against zone defense (no matter who’s on the roster).
The Wildcats have emphasized the need to get Zeke Nnaji the ball inside, and surely that will be a focus heading into this one. At the same time, Arizona has to be able to hit 3s, something it did not do in its losses to Baylor, Gonzaga, and St. John’s.
Speaking of 3s, the Ducks don’t shoot a lot of them, but they are dangerous when they let ‘em fly. Oregon is converting 39.9 percent of its triples this season, the seventh-best mark in the country. However, they rank 243rd in 3-point rate.
The long balls mostly come from four players:
- New Mexico transfer Anthony Mathis — 37-76 (.487)
- Senior Payton Pritchard — 31-80 (.388)
- JuCo transfer Chris Duarte — 25-69 (.362)
- Sophomore Will Richardson — 18-33 (.545)
Arizona should encourage UNLV transfer Shakur Juiston to shoot as many 3s as he darn well pleases. He is 1 for 18 from that range.
Who’s in, who’s out?
Arizona enters this game with a full deck of scholarship players (well, besides Brandon Williams) while the Ducks will be without freshman forward C.J. Walker, who is battling knee and back injuries.
Walker, who has started in half the 14 games he’s appeared in, is Oregon’s No. 1 shot blocker and fifth-best rebounder. Fortunately for the Ducks, they now have another freshman big man—N’Faly Dante—at their disposal.
The former top-15 recruit was ineligible for the first 10 games of the season, and is averaging 7.0 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks in 15.4 minutes since returning.
“Some of their biggest wins came without him and he is a terrific talent,” Miller said. “A game-changer around the basket.”
Standing at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, Dante’s measurements are pretty much identical to those of Arizona freshman Christian Koloko. That could make for some interesting battles under the basket.
Offensive rebounds galore
Arizona’s conference-opening win against ASU was satisfying in part because the Wildcats showed improvement on the glass, outmuscling their rivals 47-32.
The caveat is that ASU is a poor rebounding team and its top player in that department, Romello White, was limited with an ankle injury.
The Ducks should put Arizona’s defensive rebounding under more duress. They rank 48th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
However, the Wildcats could have a lot of success on the offensive glass too. The Ducks are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, checking in at 288th.
Both offenses are in the top-15 in efficiency so the one that’s able to generate more second shots could be the one that comes away victorious. In that case, Juiston and Okoro are the Oregon players to be wary of. They are averaging 2.2 offensive rebounds apiece.
Youth vs. experience
If you like elite point guard play, you are in for a treat.
Arizona brings future first-round pick Nico Mannion into Matthew Knight Arena for his first-ever conference road game. The freshman phenom is averaging 14.4 points, 6.3 assists, and just 2.5 turnovers per game, though has been in a shooting slump lately.
Oregon will trot out Payton Pritchard, who Arizona fans should be familiar with at this point, considering he’s faced the Wildcats nearly a dozen times already.
Only this time, he’s even better. Pritchard is averaging career-highs in points (18.7), assists (5.9), rebounds (4.4), and field goal percentage (50.3) this season.
He is, quite simply, the Ducks’ heart and soul.
“He makes the right play and when you just watch Payton Pritchard, he plays never out of control,” Miller said. “He lands on two feet. He shoots pull ups. He’s such a low turnover player for somebody who has the ball in his hands as much he does, because Oregon right now really depends on him, and he comes through. He’s just very strong. You look at him physically, he looks like a linebacker, a boxer. He can really take the hit and you could tell he’s a very durable player.”
Indeed, Pritchard has started in 123 consecutive games, including a Final Four as a freshman in 2017.
“He’s now played on four excellent Oregon teams and he’s been a big reason on each of those teams that they’ve been good,” Miller said. “He has the experience. He has the know-how, in addition to his overall talent. But he means a lot to Oregon. Just watching them on offense, he not only scores himself, but he might be the best in our conference at getting his teammates shots. And it’ll be a big test for our team.”
The Wildcats have an opportunity to take a two-game lead on Oregon in the loss column, a potentially devastating development for the Ducks’ conference title hopes considering they still have to venture to McKale Center in late February.
There is always pressure to win at home in the Pac-12, so this is a bigger game for Oregon than it is for Arizona, who would probably be content with splitting this road trip, though a sweep would put UA in the driver’s seat for a Pac-12 championship.
KenPom gives the Ducks a 60 percent chance of winning Thursday, with a projected score of 73-70.
Don’t forget about Duarte
Miller made sure to mention Cameron Duarte before ending his weekly press conference Tuesday, so I’ll finish this preview by talking about him too.
The junior college transfer was the Pac-12 Player of the Week a couple weeks ago after dropping 32 points, six assists and five rebounds in a win over Alabama State. He made 12 of his 15 shots, including six 3-pointers.
Duarte’s Division I career got off to a slow start, but he has been on fire as of late, scoring in double figures in eight of his last nine games.
For the season, the 6-foot-6 Duarte is averaging 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3. He has started every game, typically alongside Pritchard, Mathis, Juiston, and Okoro.
“He’s really efficient, and he’s a very good player,” Miller said. “So Josh (Green) will have, at times, the assignment of guarding him and that’ll be a great challenge for him.”