10:30 PM EST, Pac-12 Network – Line: Arizona -5
Pac-12 favorites clash in the Pacific Northwest, as the Oregon Ducks host the seventh-ranked Arizona Wildcats at Matthew Knight Arena. The Wildcats (13-1, 1-0 in Pac-12) recently saw their 12-0 start to the campaign, and to a larger effect their 39-game non-conference winning streak, come to an end at the hand of UNLV in a 71-67 defeat; leading 41-36 at Halftime, the visitors simply ran out of gas in the second half, as the hosts outscored them 35-26 over the final twenty minutes. The biggest takeaway from the loss was Arizona’s defense, or lack thereof, which up until that point had been one of the staunchest in the country. In fact, Sean Miller’s charges had relegated five of their previous six opponents to 39.7% shooting from the field or worse. But against the Rebels it was a far different story; UNLV shot a respectable 44.9% overall, including just 4-of-13 from three (30.8%), but outworked the ‘Cats on the offensive glass, earning a dozen offensive rebounds, which led to some easy second-chance opportunities around the rim, serving as the difference in the contest. The duo of Christian Wood and Rashad Vaughn combined for 35 points on 19-of-38 shooting from the field (50.0%) along with fifteen rebounds, while Patrick McGaw dropped thirteen off the Bench. In turn, Miller received very little from his own group of reserves, as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts scored all six of the bench’s points. As for the team as a whole, they were flat throughout the night on the offensive end of the court, shooting a poor 42.6% from the floor, including 5-of-15 from beyond the arc (33.3%). With little support from the bench, all five starters scored in double-figures, led by T.J. McConnell, who scored fourteen points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%), with Brandon Ashley and stud Freshman Stanley Johnson contributing with thirteen points apiece, the latter also totaling thirteen rebounds along with three steals and as many assists.
However, he wouldn’t stay in that capacity for very long, as Miller would move him to the bench in favor of Hollis-Jefferson, who would make his first start of the campaign Sunday Night. With the Sophomore finally getting the nod in the starting lineup, the Wildcats dismantled the Sun Devils in a 73-49 romp in Tucson, as they got back to business on the defensive end, absolutely smothering their opponent. The hosts yielded a mere 32.6% shooting from the field, a season-low, including a scant 5-of-17 from downtown (29.4%), while forcing a season-high twenty-two turnovers. Truth be told, it’s not as if they managed to get anything going closer to the rim either, netting just nine of their twenty-six attempts (34.6%). In fact, if they hadn’t made sixteen of their nineteen free-throws, then the final outcome would have been uglier than it really was. On the other hand, any problems that the Wildcats had against the Rebels in the tilt prior disappeared, as they connected on a healthy 51.0% of their shots overall, including half of their attempts from long-range (5-of-10). Hollis-Jefferson and Ashley each scored thirteen points apiece, while Johnson matched their output in twenty-five minutes of action off the bench. Those three players have carried Arizona offensively thus far, but from a chemistry standpoint they may yet prove to be far more effective with the younger Johnson coming off the pine. Calling him a reserve is really just semantics, for the explosive swingman has logged a solid 28.1 minutes, leading the team in scoring (14.4) and rebounds (6.9). Hollis-Jefferson on the other hand, has added 11.4 points on 54.8% shooting, along with 6.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists, with a PER of 24.8, the highest on the team. Miller has proven that he is not afraid to tinker with his rotation as he sees fit, evidenced by giving the aforementioned Pitts the nod over Junior Guard Gabe York in the thumping of Arizona State. Time will tell if they will in fact improve upon an already stellar offensive output, averaging 76.1 points (36th Nationally) on 50.1% shooting from the field (9th Nationally), including 54.8% shooting from within the three-point arc (20th Nationally), and 38.0% from beyond it (48th Nationally), with 15.2 assists (56th Nationally). However, no matter who winds up starting tonight’s game, it’s hard to fathom these guys improving their wayward free-throw shooting by shuffling the deck; Miller’s charges have struggled mightily from the charity stripe, netting a dreadful 65.9% of their free-throw attempts (251st Nationally), a major factor considering they’ve had no problem getting to the line in the first place, averaging 27.0 attempts per outing (15th Nationally). Don’t discount that weakness, folks, for it could turn into an Achilles Heel in a close, competitive game.
Meanwhile, if any team can dissolve Arizona’s hold on the Pac-12, it figures to be Oregon (11-3, 1-0 in Pac-12), who has had their number over the past few seasons. The Ducks have defeated the Wildcats in three out of their past four meetings, earning a split of the season series last year. When last they met, in a 64-57 victory in Eugene on March 8th, Dana Altman’s charges drained ten of their nineteen attempts from beyond the arc (52.6%), proving to be the difference in a defensive game in which both teams shot below 43.0% overall. In comparison, Arizona managed to knock down a pitiful 2-of-11 from distance (18.2%), as they were outscored by twenty-four points in that regard. However, Altman’s three leading scorers that night, Jonathan Lloyd, Mike Moser, and Jason Calliste, have all moved on from the college hardwood, leaving a new cast of characters to pick up the ball and keep it rolling. That burden figures to fall on the shoulders of Joseph Young, who currently leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 20.1 points per game. The 6-2 Senior Point Guard has had his struggles against the Wildcats, shooting a miserable 8-of-25 from the field in the two meetings last year, but is in the midst of a blistering stretch in which he has averaged 21.5 points over the past four outings, including twenty-seven points in Saturday’s 71-59 victory over arch-rival Oregon State.
Winners of six straight games, including eight of nine following back-to-back losses to the likes of Michigan (70-63) and VCU (77-63), both of which were on neutral courts, Oregon borrowed a page from their counterpart tonight, dismantling the opposition in their conference opener. Against the Beavers, the Ducks put their foot on the gas in the second half, outscoring the visitors 42-32 over the final twenty minutes after taking a two-point lead into halftime. Defensively, they suffocated their rival, permitting just 35.2% shooting from the field, including 4-of-15 from three (26.7%), and just nine assists. On the opposite end, the hosts shot a solid 48.9% themselves, including 6-of-13 from downtown (46.2%), led by the aforementioned Young, who scored a game-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting (66.7%), drilling five of his six three-point attempts (83.3%). Elgin Cook added another eighteen points on 5-of-9 shooting (55.6%), while pulling down a team-high nine rebounds and securing three steals. The bench also proved to be a factor Saturday Night, as Altman’s reserves accounted for fourteen points to Oregon State’s ten. But let’s be honest, the most impressive feat of that entire contest was Oregon actually winning a game with their play on the defensive end, where (surprise, surprise) they haven’t shown the requisite effort on a consistent basis in quite some time. That was their Achilles Hell last season, despite their ability to light up a scoreboard, and it has continued to be the issue in the present. Thus far, Oregon has allowed 67.6 points (212th Nationally) on a stellar 37.6% shooting from the field (25th Nationally), including 38.6% shooting from within the three-point arc (9th Nationally), but 35.0% from beyond it (242nd Nationally). They are one of the best rebounding teams in the country (21st Nationally, 42.4 rebounds/game), and defend the rim better than most (18th Nationally, 6.0 blocks/game), but they don’t force very many turnovers (272nd Nationally, 11.7), and are oftentimes a victim of their own up-tempo attack. In essence, it’s a problem of volume. By pushing the pace whenever possible, the Ducks average 63.4 shots per game, but since they can’t force their opponents into mistakes, they in turn allow them to attempt just as many, if not more shots themselves; Oregon’s competition has attempted 62.4 shots per game, 39th-most in the country. The lack of takeaways also lends to a severe lack of pressure on the perimeter, where they have been prone to being sniped; after all, why would you test their stellar interior defense, when you can beat them from the perimeter where they offer little resistance? Altman’s defense has relinquished ninety three-point field goals through fourteen games, ranking 204th in the country, which could be a real factor against the Wildcats, who unlike last season, have proven fully capable of catching fire from distance.