Notebook: Arizona travels to Eugene in search of marquee victory
After stopping their two-game losing streak on Saturday against ASU, Arizona will hit the road for just the second time this season in what might be its toughest test so far, heading to Eugene to take on the ninth-ranked Oregon Ducks in a game that will have huge implications for both teams as they vie for supremacy in the conference come March.
Matthew Knight Arena has not been particularly kind to the Wildcats, as they are just 1-5 in the arena since it opened in 2011, including a 26-point loss last season. Arizona got its only victory there in 2015 but hasn't been able to beat the Ducks since 2018, dropping its last three matchups.
As Arizona heads to the Pacific Northwest, highlights of the program will include a familiar foe in Oregon, the “other” freshman playing a bigger role and early confirmation of news everyone expected.
Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard is a trendy pick by many around college basketball as the best player in the country, and rightfully so. The senior is averaging 18.7 points and 5.9 assists on 50.3 percent shooting.
“I feel like he’s played against us 20 times,” Sean Miller said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “He’s played on three, now four excellent Oregon teams, and he’s been a big reason on each of those teams that they’ve been good.”
While not quite 20 times, Pritchard has played against the Wildcats six times so far over his career but has been held in check fairly well by Arizona. Pritchard is averaging just 8.1 points and 5.1 assists per game on 33 percent from the field against the ‘Cats, but he also hasn’t been the primary option on those teams as he is this season.
While freshmen Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji have been the talk of the program this season, there was one more player in the class this season, and he is beginning to make a name of his own.
Christian Koloko wasn’t much thought of coming into the season. The Sierra Canyon product was listed at 7-feet, 195 pounds coming to Arizona and was speculated to be more of a project, since he had only been playing the game about three years.
While still not a finished product, Koloko has shown major signs of improvement over the past month, including a season-high 8 points to go along with 6 rebounds in Arizona’s blowout victory over ASU.
“My confidence grew by just doing my job,” Koloko said. “Just doing what the coaches want me to do. Be ready every time, every game. If I get into the game and only play two minutes, just be ready and do my job, coming out of the game knowing I did the best I could.”
Minutes opened up for the freshman when Stone Gettings was injured Nov. 29 against Penn, which is when Koloko really started to feel he could be a big part of things this season.
“I had more playing time and just took the opportunity to show that I can play and do my job, block shots, rebound the ball and help my team,” Koloko said.
According to Koloko, he wears the number 35 because of his favorite player, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant. Don’t expect to see Koloko shooting NBA 3-pointers anytime soon, however.
“Sometimes, but [coach] Miller won’t let me.” Koloko said when asked if he tries to pattern his game after the former NBA MVP.
Ducks coach Dana Altman said his team will be without freshman forward C.J. Walker against Arizona at his press conference on Wednesday, continuing the bad luck with both injuries and eligibility this season.
Oregon finally had its full roster in action against Colorado last week, with N’Faly Dante eligible after missing the first 10 games of the season and UNLV grad transfer Shakur Juiston missing five games with an MCL injury.
“He was starting to make some really good progress,” Aultman said of Walker. “I felt really good for him, he was playing with a lot of energy. Something happened in the first half of the Alabama State game and he hasn’t been quite the same. He’s just kind of beat up right now.”
Walker averages 5.7 points per game in about 18 minutes of action. Oregon has a solid front line to match the Wildcats, anchored by Juiston and Francis Okoro, with Dante and Chandler Lawson also seeing around 15 to 20 minutes per game. It is worth noting the Ducks have lost the rebounding battle in each of their three losses this season.
One and Done
While everyone anticipated Nico Mannion would only be in Tucson for one season, things aren’t typically made official until after the season ends.
Sean Miller confirmed what everyone was thinking, just a few months ahead of schedule.
With Arizona officially announcing that Georgetown transfer James Akinjo will be coming next season, Miller went into what he brings to the table after having to sit out this season.
“When it came to us that he was going to transfer, we had an interest in [Akinjo], especially with the need that we have,” Miller said. “We’re gonna lose Nico. James is that point guard that you love to have.”
Arizona will lose four players to graduation, with Nnaji, Green and Mannion also expected to turn pro after the season. Akinjo and Hillcrest Prep guard Dalen Terry are the only players so far part of the 2020 class, with Jordan Brown currently sitting out after transferring from Nevada. Brandon Williams is also expected to be back next season after missing this year due to knee surgery.
A New Hope
When Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker released at the end of last month, it centered on the title character, Rey, bringing a balance to the force. After only receiving three bids each of the last two seasons, each team in the conference is hoping to bring their own type of balance to the standings, which has shown in the first week of conference play.
As many as eight teams could argue they are deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid right now, and every team in the conference except California owns a winning record.
“When you get into a conference season and different programs are able to win both home and on the road and you have that competitive balance, it’s really voiced as a good thing,” Miller said. “We have a lot of teams that have had a successful non-conference season. Now when we play each other, I think that is to our benefit, not our detriment.”
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