Arizona basketball preview: Lyons ready for Oregon and its rebound challenge
Five of Arizona’s first 14 games were away from the McKale Center, but only two were in enemy territory and both against teams out of the RPI Top 175. That will change tonight as the No. 4 Wildcats travel to Eugene, Ore., to play Oregon at 7 p.m. in Matthew Knight Arena.
With three freshmen receiving significant minutes for Arizona (14-0, 2-0 Pac-12), the hostile environment might be trouble for a team that struggled in its two opening games of Pac-12 play, despite the wins. Of course, Arizona also has several seniors, and for guard Mark Lyons, the road only adds more motivation.
“I relish moments like that,” Lyons said about playing in a hostile environment. “Good game or bad game, I know I’m going to be ready, I know our team’s going to be ready and I know we’re going in there with the right focus.”
In the two road games against Texas Tech and Clemson, Lyons shot 11-for-20 from the field and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line. Against the Tigers, Lyons had eight second-half points and helped the Wildcats make a 26-5 run in the second half to come from behind and put Clemson away.
“I always like when people talk to me [from the crowd] and root against me,” Lyons said. “That’s the type of thing I grew up with — people doubting me and things like that. So when people talk about my team on the road, you’re just giving me more fuel and my team more fuel to play hard and play together.”
Lyons doesn’t engage with the fans when they taunt and jeer him, but he said he still hears what they’re saying.
“When I make a good pass or when I score, it fuels me up,” Lyons said. “Every time they say something, I’m just like, ‘All right, you think that way? I’m going to prove you wrong.’”
Freshman center Kaleb Tarczewski said Lyons gives the team confidence on the road, and before the Texas Tech game, the senior transfer told the freshmen, “This is where the fun starts.”
“You need experience when you’re going into someone else’s home court,” Tarczewski said. “Everybody’s rooting against you, trying to get you motivated — it’s really a great feeling.”
Beating conference bottom-feeders is one thing, but tonight the Wildcats will face a team inside the RPI Top 50 that’s been on the verge of being ranked all season. Oregon (12-2, 1-0) has a balanced offense with five players scoring in double figures, and the team rebounds the ball better than the longer Wildcats.
“I think playing Oregon at Oregon will be one of the most difficult games in our conference, not just for us but any team,” head coach Sean Miller said. “No question they’re a really good team; that’s why they have the record that they have of 12-2. I believe that they’re going to be in the conference race all the way to early March.”
The Ducks average 77.5 points a game and 41.1 rebounds a game, which puts them ahead of Arizona in both categories. The two teams are ranked 7th and 8th respectively in rebounding margin, and Miller said the winner around the glass will have a major advantage in the game.
However, Oregon’s top rebounder, senior Arsalan Kazemi, does more than grab 9.8 rebounds a game on a nightly basis. The 6-foot-7-inch Kazemi is 11th in the nation with 2.75 steals per game, giving the quick-handed transfer from Rice the most steals in the nation for a forward.
“If you have a guy on your team who averages double-figure rebounds and leads your conference in steals, that’s one exceptional player,” Miller said. “He’s impacted their success a great deal.”
This will be Arizona’s first-ever trip to the state-of-the-art Knight Arena and the Ducks’ peculiarly designed court. Miller said the design of the arena shouldn’t be an issue, and he won’t make any adjustments, like telling his players to avoid the tree shadows that are painted on the wood court.
Regardless of the design, the unwelcoming environment will be new for the Wildcats this season. But, Lyons isn’t fazed a bit.
“Just like every road game, you got to go in there with your team and know that it’s us versus everybody else,” he said. “That’s the mentality that we have, home or away.”