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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball hosts Oregon schools

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-oregon-ducks-osu-beavers-preview-nfaly-dante-pac12-kerr-kriisa-2023 Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Arizona brings a 4-game win streak into the final full month of the regular season, and February will see the 5th-ranked Wildcats play five of seven games at McKale Center.

That begins Thursday night with a clash against Oregon (13-9, 7-4 Pac-12) followed by Saturday night’s matchup against Oregon State (9-13, 3-8). The Wildcats split their trip to the Oregon schools in mid-January, winning at OSU by 12 before losing to the Ducks by 19.

Arizona (19-3, 8-3) is listed as an 8.5-point favorite over Oregon, per DraftKings Sportsbook. predicts an 81-72 victory for the Wildcats, and the analytics site expects them to beat the Beavers by 20.

Here’s what to watch for from this weekend’s games:

Another revenge game

Arizona paid Washington State back for that home loss by winning in Pullman last Thursday, improving to 4-0 in rematch games under Tommy Lloyd. Now comes a fifth chance to get revenge, and this one may be the most emotional after how badly Oregon beat the Wildcats last month.

“They basically were able to kind of manhandle us for most of the game,” Lloyd said Wednesday when reflecting on that 87-68 loss, the most lopsided of his seven coaching setbacks. “We’re playing a very talented team that seems to be playing their best basketball right now. We saw and felt it firsthand. So I’m looking forward to see how our guys respond.”

The UA was outrebounded by 10 in that game, with the Ducks outscoring it 14-5 in second-chance points. The Wildcats’ 59.4 percent defensive rebounding rate was their lowest of the season.

“Our big thing right now is just making sure we rebound against them,” freshman Kylan Boswell said. “They definitely beat us on the glass last game. (N’Faly) Dante was definitely killing us from the board’s last game.”

Quieting Dante’s fire

Dante, a 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior, tied a career high with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting (including several dunks) and had 10 rebounds against Arizona. He’s averaged a double-double in three games since then, though he missed the Colorado game after injuring his knee in warmups and then came off the bench against Utah and had 9 points and 10 minutes in 21 minutes.

“He’s a physical specimen,” Lloyd said of Dante. “He plays extremely hard. He’s got a couple of posts moves he’s really comfortable at. He’s a force on the offensive glass and he’s just a physical presence.”

It’s not just Dante that Arizona has to worry about inside. Oregon is the fourth-tallest team in Division I, per KenPom, with three bigs averaging at least 15 minutes in Pac-12 play. Nate Bittle and Kel’el Ware combined for only 21 minutes against the UA, but since then they’ve been seeing more time as the Ducks regularly play two bigs like the Wildcats used to do most of the time.

“I would imagine they’re gonna continue the same,” Lloyd said. “They’re playing the best they have all season. I’m not at their practices or I don’t know what they’re saying in their meetings but I mean, they have a really good team that’s playing really well. I’m assuming they’ll kind of let it ride.”

That may prompt Arizona to go big more often than it has since the Oregon loss, as in the aftermath of that game Lloyd swapped Pelle Larsson for Cedric Henderson Jr. in the starting lineup and also went small almost 37 percent of the time the last four games.

Against Oregon, a combination of Azuolas Tubelis and either Oumar Ballo, Dylan Anderson or Henri Veesaar played nearly 35 minutes.

“When you’ve kind of tightened your rotation a little bit, and you got two bigs and you’re bringing in Pelle to play some of that 4 spot, just by your rotation, you’re playing a small lineup more,” Lloyd said. “It hasn’t been anything other than let’s put the best guys we can on the floor over the course of 40 minutes to give us a chance to win the game.”

Perimeter defensive choices

Since Oregon put up 87 points and shot 53.1 percent, Arizona’s defense has been on another level. The last four opponents have scored 62 per game and shot 36.1 percent.

The 3-point defense has been even more impressive, as those four teams were a combined 20 of 81 (24.7 percent). The Wildcats last held four consecutive Pac-12 opponents under 30 percent from outside late in the 2017-18 season … but then gave up 15 3s to Buffalo in a first-round NCAA Tournament loss.

So it goes with defending the three. There’s an element of luck involved, but just as important is how much emphasis a team puts on that part of its defense.

“I think you make choices,” Lloyd said. “Are you heavy in the gaps off a certain guy, are you taking away threes from a certain guy? Those are some defensive choices you make. There’s lots of arguments about the impact of the 3-point defense. I think, to be a really good defensive team, you got to do two things: you got to do your best taking away threes, especially from 3-point shooters, and then you got to do your best job you can protect the paint. It’s a lot easier said than done.

Oregon was 11 of 32 from 3 against Arizona, and for the season is 320th out of 363 Division I teams (30.6 percent). The Ducks are 29.2 percent from outside in Pac-12 play, second-worst in the league, but is 5-0 when making at least 11 triples.

Keeping Kerr hot and helpful

Kerr Kriisa leads the Pac-12 in both assists (124) and 3-pointers (57), meaning he’s been involved in more than 28 percent of Arizona’s field goals. But a quick scan of any UA-centric message board, comment section or Twitter thread and you’d think he’s the worst player on the team.

When he misses threes it’s because he shoots too much, he needs to focus on being a point guard. When his turnovers stack up it means he should really be playing the 2 and isn’t someone who can lead the Wildcats on a deep NCAA tourney run if he’s running the offense.

Lloyd’s take:

“He’s just got to find a nice, good happy medium of doing both,” he said, noting that it’s important for Kriisa to be “kind of locking in and making sure he’s hunting shots” while also handling his floor general duties.

“The better the ball moves, the better shots Kerr gets. We want to emphasize moving the ball and moving our bodies and hopefully that’ll continue. The great thing about Kerr is he’s looking to run the team and make sure that the team is in the best position possible, and sometimes he’ll let his shooting take a backseat to run the team.”

Consistenly in all areas remains elusive for Kriisa, who was 11 of 21 from 3 on the Washington road sweep after going 15 of 57 in the previous seven Pac-12 games since Christmas. He has 10 games with six or more assists, two in double digits including his second career triple-double, but also has seven contests with 4+ turnovers and seven games where his assist-to-turnover ratio (which is 1.85 to 1 for the season) is 1 or lower.