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What to watch for when Arizona wraps up season at Oregon

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arizona-wildcats-oregon-ducks-preview-storylines-finale-miller-pac12-2021-akinjo-defense-mathurin Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Once more into the breach …

The Arizona Wildcats wrap up their abbreviated 2020-21 season on Monday night when they visit the Oregon Ducks in Eugene.

Arizona (17-8, 10-8 Pac-12) will not be participating in either the conference or NCAA tournament after self-imposing a postseason ban back in December, a proactive measure related to the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into the Wildcats’ program. There’s room to add an additional game later in the week, but it’s unlikely, so this will be the UA’s final game.

Oregon (16-5, 11-4) is in the thick of the Pac-12 title face, beat Arizona 63-61 in Tucson in mid-February and has won six in a row over the Wildcats.

Here’s what to watch for in Arizona’s 2020-21 swan song.

Facing a motivated foe

Arizona’s recently completed home sweep of the Washington schools, its first at McKale since January of 2020, saw the Wildcats seem disinterested at the outset. Maybe that was because it was playing against opponents who entered with a combined record of 23-29 overall and 11-25 in Pac-12 play.

In fact, Arizona coach Sean Miller thought Washington took full advantage of being the underdog, saying the Huskies “came in here with nothing to lose, some house money, guys played free, they drove the ball, they spread the court. They had a couple guys go hot from three. And in 40 minutes in college basketball, especially in conference play, you know anything can happen.”

Arizona cannot afford to take lightly an Oregon team that, despite multiple COVID-19 pauses, has a shot at the Pac-12 regular season title.

The Ducks have won seven of eight after winning just once in a five-week span, their only loss coming at USC last Monday.

Miller isn’t worried about his team being motivated for this one, however.

“The group that we have, I don’t think I have to give them a pep talk,” he said. “I think that they’re excited to play against a really good team, a team that’s beaten us six times in a row, a team that’s beaten us on the last possession of the game, I think, almost really the last three times we played them. We know they’re really good. They’re playing for a lot. We have to play a lot better on Monday night than we did here (Saturday).”

Closing out a game the right way

After Saturday’s win, Miller scoffed at a reporter who insinuated Arizona has struggled in late-game situations—the Wildcats are 5-3 this season in games decided by six or fewer points—but he did acknowledge that the two-point loss to Oregon was at least partly due to mistakes down the stretch.

On defense, though, not on offense.

“Against Oregon, one of the things that we didn’t do a good job of is we didn’t stay on our men,” Miller said. “(Chris) Duarte took a wide-open uncontested shot, not on a set play but on a broken play, and we overhelped.”

Against Washington, while Azuolas Tubelis’ jumper got the headlines it wouldn’t have meant much if Arizona hadn’t played so well on defense on the Huskies’ final two possessions. Kerr Kriisa drew a charge with 18.2 seconds left, setting up the game-winning score, then Kriisa disrupted Quade Green enough once he got across the halfcourt line to force him into a bad 3-point attempt at the buzzer.

Oregon, for the record, is 6-1 in 2-score games, including 4-0 during its recent run.

Looser and healthier backcourt help

While James Akinjo had a career-high 26 points and seven assists, and Bennedict Mathurin got back on track with 10 points and 13 rebounds, Arizona’s other guards combined for 10 points on 3-of-21 shooting, including 1 of 13 from 3-point range.

That includes Dalen Terry, who doesn’t regularly score much, so anything Arizona gets from him is gravy. But having Terrell Brown Jr. go 1 for 11 (0 for 6 on 3s) and Kriisa make only 1 of 4 triples, won’t get it done against Oregon.

Then again, neither figures to be dealing with the same distractions, physical or mental, as they did against Washington.

Miller believes Brown, who was playing in front of his family on Senior Day, saying “in some ways he might have wanted to play well too good,” while Kriisa had not practiced all week after suffering a groin injury in practice.

“I’ve yet to see a young player not practice four or five days and then all of a sudden show up on game night and be ready to go,” Miller said of Kriisa, who despite the injury was still on point defensively at the end.

Kriisa had a career-best 12 points, hitting four 3s, in the last game against Oregon.

Benchmarks to reach

If Jordan Brown wants to make Miller a psychic, he’s going to need to have another one of his big scoring games. After managing just 10 points in the previous two games, Brown is down to averaging 9.6 per game.

Miller said before the season he expected Brown to be a double-digit scorer, so the Nevada transfer will need to drop 21 or more at Oregon. That’s not impossible, since he had 25 at Oregon State in 21 minutes off the bench.

If Brown were to get to 10 per game it would give Arizona five players who averages double digits for the season. That hasn’t happened since 2002-03, when Jason Gardner (14.8), Salim Stoudamire (13.0), Channing Frye (12.6), Luke Walton (10.8) and Rick Anderson (10.7) did so.

Speaking of Walton, in 2001-02 he averaged 15.7 points, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game. That’s the last time a UA player has averaged 15/5/1.5, but Akinjo will do so if his final game mirrors the rest of the season.

The Georgetown transfer is averaging 15.4 points, 5.3 assists and 1.5 steals, one of only 10 players in Division I to do so this season.

And if Akinjo and Mathurin can both stay above 40 percent from 3-point range—they’re at 40.7 and 41.9 percent, respectively—it would give Arizona a pair of shooters to average that rate for a season for the first time since Kyle Fogg (44.4) and Brendon Lavender (48.7) did it in 2011-12. Fogg and Jamelle Horne also did it in 2009-10, Miller’s first season with Arizona.