Arizona men's basketball hits the road to take on the Oregon schools
Before the 2019-20 season began, Arizona basketball fans had circled a few games on their calendars. Thursday’s contest against No. 9 Oregon is certainly one of those anticipated matchups, as the two Pac-12 title favorites will meet in Eugene, Ore., before ending the weekend against Oregon State on Sunday.
The set of games will include the squad’s first true-road game since Dec. 7 and the first game away from McKale since Dec. 21. Despite the lack of experience playing away from home this season, head coach Sean Miller says the road trip could not have come at a better time.
“I actually think a road trip at this time is a good thing," Miller said. "It kind of changes the scenery. We have to play nine road games this year anyway so might as well get going.”
Arizona (11-3, 1-0) moved up one spot in the AP Top 25 poll after its dominant win against Arizona State last Saturday. The Wildcats snapped a two-game losing streak and secured their first win in conference play. The team hopes it can ride that momentum into Thursday’s game against Oregon.
The Ducks (12-3, 1-1) fell five spots to No. 9 in the AP poll following their unexpected road-loss to Colorado last Thursday. It was undoubtedly their worst loss of the season after shooting 3-18 from the 3-point line and ultimately falling 74-65.
Oregon has taken down some of the top teams in the country however, including Michigan, Memphis and Seton Hall. The Ducks rank No. 6 in the country in offensive efficiency while shooting 40% as a team from beyond the arc this year, with four players shooting above 36% from 3. They are led by the backcourt of Payton Pritchard, averaging 18.7 points per game, and Will Richardson who leads the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage at 54%.
“Payton Pritchard is Oregon’s heart and soul,” Miller said. “I feel like he’s played against us twenty times. He had a big role as a freshman and he’s played on three excellent teams. He’s now played on four excellent Oregon teams and he’s been a big reason on each of those teams why they’ve been good.”
All the hype is centered around Thursday’s matchup, and rightfully so, but Sunday’s game against Oregon State could prove to be a tougher opponent than expected. The Beavers have finally erased their label of being the bottom-dweller of the conference by finishing fourth in the Pac-12 last season with an 18-13 record. This season has been even better for them, as OSU is 11-3 overall and 1-1 in conference play so far.
The Beavers also rank No. 16 in the nation in offensive efficiency while going 7-0 at home this season. Senior forward Tres Tinkle and junior guard Ethan Thompson have been leading the way for Oregon State this season, as those two names may sound familiar to Arizona fans. Tinkle and Thompson combined for 42 points in each game against the Wildcats last season and are picking up right where they left off this season. Tinkle is second in the conference in scoring, averaging 19.7 points per game this season, with Thompson scoring 16.4 points per game.
Here are two things to watch for in the coming games.
The emergence of Christian Koloko
Before the season began, Miller expressed his confidence in the 7-foot freshman by saying that Koloko was better and more developed than he and the coaching staff expected him to be when he arrived in Tucson. It took a little while to see Koloko get involved in the minutes rotation but we are finally seeing what Miller was raving about.
Last Saturday against ASU, Koloko scored 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in just 11 minutes, surpassing his best performance of the year when he grabbed 10 rebounds in 11 minutes against Omaha on Dec. 11. Miller has already confirmed he will have an expanded role this year, making him one of the most exciting players to watch on this team.
Defense could decide both matchups
However, the Wildcats have shown flashes of being a good defensive team, ranking No. 25 in the country in defensive efficiency and allowing their opponents to score 70 or more points in only four games this year. Both Oregon teams have proven to be more vulnerable on the other side of the court. Oregon State ranks No. 109 and Oregon ranks No. 110 in defensive efficiency this year. Both games have the capability to be high-scoring contests, but expect the defenses from each team to make an impact this weekend.
The action begins against Oregon on Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN. The Wildcats conclude the road trip with Oregon State on Sunday at 8 p.m. on FS1.