Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Thursday's match-up between the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona Wildcats pits the Pac-12's best offense against the conference's best defense.
The Oregon Ducks (12-2, 1-0) face the biggest game in the brief history of Matthew Knight Arena, as they face No. 4 Arizona (14-0, 2-0) on Thursday night. Arizona can certainly boast some impressive scalps this season, with wins over Florida, San Diego State, and Colorado on the season. However, all three of those wins were down to the wire, and none came on the road. Of Arizona's two road victories this season (Clemson, Texas Tech), none have come against a team as accomplished as Oregon, or an environment as rough as Oregon, who is riding a 16-game home winning streak. Given how much they struggled against Utah and Colorado last week, many are saying that Arizona is primed for an upset.
This is possibly the most intriguing match-up of the Pac-12 season, and it's unfortunate that we get to see it only once. It pits strength against strength. Arizona is the most efficient offensive team in the conference (113.3 points/100 possessions), mainly because they shoot the ball so well. You name the shooting stat: EFG%, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage; they're top two in the conference in everything. Also, don't be fooled by their total rebound numbers, which suggest a poor rebounding team--Arizona leads the conference in rebound percentage, they just have less rebounds available because they shoot so well.
On the other hand, you have Oregon, which is not only the best defensive team in the conference, but one of the elite defensive teams in the nation, ranking 8th in opponents' efficiency (84.3 points per 100 possessions, a phenomenal number). The Ducks just beat on teams. They don't give up easy looks from the perimeter. They pound on teams inside. Oregon outrebounds teams to the tune of 11 boards per game. Look at last weekend's Civil War match-up--the Beavers were flat out gassed trying to handle the Ducks' physicality.
But this isn't just a match-up of an elite offense against an elite defense, because it turns out that both squads are fairly well rounded. For all the grief we've given the Ducks about their woeful 22% from the three-point line, this is still an incredibly efficient offensive team at 107.4 points/100 possessions, good for 4th in the conference, while Arizona is second in the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency (89.9). Two interesting stats that could have a big effect on the outcome: the Ducks turn the ball over more than any team in the conference, while Arizona is second in forcing turnovers (behind Oregon, of all things). Also, the Wildcats are second in the conference in free throw rate, while Oregon just flat out doesn't foul teams.
Arizona has an eight-man rotation, and is led by senior point guard Mark Lyons. Lyons, in his only season at Arizona after three at Xavier, leads the team with 14.1 points per game. He can hit the three (35%), but also finish at the rim and is hard to rattle, having hit many of Arizona's big shots this season. Sophomore Nick Johnson is the other guard, and has similar strengths, shooting even better at 37% from downtown. Its the forwards that make this team so hard to guard, as both Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom go 6'6"-6'7", both hit the three at over a 40% clip and both rebound extremely well. They also have a seven footer in Kaleb Tarczewski who, while isn't a polished offensive player, keeps a presence in the middle. This is also a team that makes you pay if you foul them--Tarczewski is the only rotation player shooting less than 72% from the line--which helps explain their aptitude in close games.
Arizona has been in a lot of close games lately, and could be ripe for the upset. For Oregon to knock them off, there are three things that are going to be critically important. The first is to not let the stage get too big. If you listened to the interviews that Will recorded during the media session earlier this week, Johnathan Loyd talked about this being the biggest game ever at MKA. The players have to understand that they belong and act like they've been there before. If you go into the game with a deer-in-the-headlights look, Arizona will crush you. Oregon needs to decisively win the rebounding battle. This was one of the overlooked things about the UNLV win, was that the Ducks won the rebounding battle with an elite rebounding team that included Anthony Bennett and Mike Moser. In fact, I believe that Oregon has won the rebounding battle in every game this season. That must continue. Finally, the Ducks have to contain Arizona's three-point shooting. Oregon has been the best team in the conference at defending the three this season. That has to continue.
A loss here doesn't kill Oregon's season by any stretch--a loss to a top-five team doesn't really hurt you. But a win has the opportunity to springboard the Ducks into the big time. It's a place we haven't visited in far too long.
6:00 p.m. PT
Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, OR