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What to watch for when Arizona hosts Oregon in critical Pac-12 game

NCAA Basketball: Oregon at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that Sean Miller referred to as “March Madness”, the Arizona Wildcats (19-7, 9-4) will try to continue their revenge tour Saturday when they host the Oregon Ducks (20-7, 9-5) in McKale Center.

Oregon downed the UA 74-73 in double overtime in January, and now there are serious Pac-12 championship implications at stake in the rematch. (We will get to those in a second).

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on ESPN. Here are some things to watch for.

The two best players in the Pac-12?

Oregon guard Payton Pritchard and Arizona forward Zeke Nnaji are the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the Pac-12, according to KenPom.com’s metrics.

It’s not a surprise to see Pritchard up there since he leads the conference in scoring (19.4) and assists (5.6) per game, and regularly carries Oregon to the finish line by making clutch plays down the stretch.

Nnaji isn’t such an obvious choice. He ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring (16.4 PPG) and fourth in rebounding (8.8 RPG). However, he does lead the Pac-12 in double-doubles (12) and true-shooting percentage (65.4), meaning his efficiency is through the roof.

If Arizona wants to avoid a sweep vs. Oregon, it will need to get more out of Nnaji this time. He was held to 11 points and 14 rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting in January’s matchup.

Saturday is a make-or-break game for Oregon and a reality check for Arizona

Already a game behind Colorado, Arizona, and ASU in the loss column, the Ducks have to win Saturday or else they will need a miracle to win the Pac-12.

The projections aren’t confident in them. ESPN’s BPI gives Arizona a 78.9 percent chance of winning. KenPom is a little bit lower at 70 percent.

Personally, that seems high given the way the Ducks have handled the Wildcats lately, winning seven of the last nine in this series, including four straight, and even two of three in McKale.

And while this is not necessarily a must-win game for Arizona, it would be a big step toward capturing a conference championship and tell us a lot about how seriously the Wildcats should be taken heading into the postseason. To this point they are lacking quality wins, only going 3-5 in Quadrant 1 games so far.

3-point shooting trends

The Ducks are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, converting 38.1 percent of their triples, the 13th-best mark in college basketball. They are much worse on the road, however, where they make just 33 percent of their 3-pointers.

The Ducks are also coming off a dismal shooting night at ASU, where they shot 8 for 28 from distance. And, really, Oregon has mostly been bad from 3-point range lately, shooting 30 percent or worse in three of its last four games.

Arizona was in a slump like that—worse, actually—before it shot 10 for 21 against Oregon State.

So, will the Wildcats keep that up or go cold again? Will Oregon stay cold or heat back up?

Frontcourt changes

The last time Arizona faced Oregon was the beginning of the end for Chase Jeter, who in Miller’s words, “didn’t get it done” in the loss in Eugene. The senior played 12 minutes that night, missing all three of his field-goal attempts and only grabbing one rebound.

Jeter struggled two days later at Oregon State, tweaked his back in practice the following week, and has only played 11 minutes since.

In his place has been Stone Gettings, whose versatile skill set and basketball IQ make the Wildcats a more dynamic offensive team, one that should (in theory, at least) make them better equipped to handle Oregon and its propensity to switch defenses on a dime.

Gettings only had three points and three rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench in the first matchup with Oregon, but that was just his second game back from a month-long absence following a facial fracture and concussion. He has been much better in the month of February, almost doubling his per-game averages from January.

Arizona has also been giving more leash to Christian Koloko lately, the lengthy freshman adding a much-needed shot blocking presence in the middle.

The Ducks could be without theirs.

Seven-footer N’Faly Dante has been out since Jan. 18 after twisting his knee. The freshman is a dominant presence around the rim, leading the Ducks in block percentage. Dante had 10 points, five rebounds, and two blocks on 5-of-6 shooting in just 19 minutes against Arizona the first time around.

Dante is reportedly getting closer to returning, and seeing how banged-up players always seem to heal up just enough to play against Arizona, I’d imagine he’ll try to give it a go.

Turnovers will be the key again

Perhaps the biggest reason Arizona beat Oregon State was its 22-9 turnover differential. While it’s highly unlikely that margin can be replicated against Oregon, the Wildcats need to make sure they win that battle Saturday.

For one thing, it will help them control the pace and keep Oregon from setting its defense. We know Arizona is at its best when it’s in transition, but the Ducks generally do a good job of slowing the game down, ranking 307th (of 353) in the country in pace.

Plus, the slower the game gets, the more valuable each possession gets, and that favors the team that executes at a higher clip. In this case, that’s Oregon, which enters with the No. 8 offense in the country.

Which brings me to this next point...

No defensive lapses

There really wasn’t much to complain about in Thursday’s win at Oregon State. So it goes when you win by 26.

But it wasn’t all good. At one point Miller slammed his clipboard after the Wildcats gave up an open 3 to Jarod Lucas, who somehow kept getting open even though he was the only OSU player hitting shots.

“We didn’t know who we were guarding,” Miller said. “That’s really what that was about.”

Arizona throughly dominated anyway, but those kind of gaffes will be the difference between winning or losing Saturday’s showdown. Remember how Arizona coughed up a late lead against Oregon the first time?

“It’s the little things at this time of year that mean more because every team is kind of the best version of themselves,” Miller said. “You have a lot of players and teams that are playing for a lot, playing their heart out. And it’s those mistakes that we make, that a lot of times come back to haunt us. If we make that mistake on Saturday, and we give (Oregon) six points because we don’t know who we’re guarding, I mean, it’s gonna be hard to beat Oregon. I’m going to hold the bar incredibly high in those areas, because that’s things that we can control. That’s being a well-prepared team that’s not going to beat themselves.”