Game 16: January 14, 2007
Arena: McKale Center
Oregon got just about all they could handle from Arizona State Thursday night. The Ducks watched a 15 point lead dissipate and had to hold their collective breath as a Sun Devil three point attempt that would have tied it at the end of regulation rimmed out.
Arizona, on the other hand, beat Oregon State 83-72 in a game that should never have been that close. The Wildcats led by as many as 22 and three times extended the lead above 16 points but could never quite finish off the pesky Beavers.
With the under card matches now out of the way, the Ducks and Wildcats have had three days instead of the usual two to prepare for tonight's main event. It should be yet another great contest in the ultra-competitive Pac-10 so fasten your seatbelts, buckle your chinstraps and get ready for a wild ride.
Here's what to look for as this one plays out:
Despite the loss to Wazzu and what appeared to be an uninspiring effort against the Beavers Arizona continues to move well without the ball, set solid screens and make crisp passes. All this has produced some very wide open shots that the usually good shooting Wildcats will knock down. The past two games have seen Arizona miss many of these shots, which is why the final scores were what they are. Still, it's not time to fret or panic. I say this because since Arizona is finally running their offense consistently, the shots will again soon fall because this team is just too good to continue to miss over the long run. Perhaps the starters are a bit tired from logging so many minutes, perhaps they're just in a shooting funk (they happen over the course of 30 plus games), or perhaps their concentration has just not been there (these are 19 and 20 year olds). Whatever the reason, things will correct themselves for an Arizona team that is still average 86 points per game. Will it be tonight? Maybe. I mean, despite the final scores Marcus Williams has played three of his best games of the season in a row (Washington, Wazzu and OSU), Budinger grabbed 10 rebounds against the Beavers while dropping in 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting, Shakur had six assists which could've been double that if anyone could have made an outside jumper.
The Ducks have underachieved since Aaron Brooks arrived, but this year they have some serious bite and Brooks has a lot to do with that. The senior guard is averaging 18 points per game and nearly five assists. In a conference that is traditionally known for its guard play, Brooks is putting together yet another fine season for the backcourt lore of the Pac-10. Another difference this season has been the play of freshman guard Tajuan Porter. Porter stands only 5'6" and weighs a mere 160 lbs. However, his presence on the floor has enabled Ernie Kent to move Brooks to the two spot where he has more opportunities to score and score he has. He had 25 in the teams upset win over then top ranked UCLA and had 11 of his 16 points in the second half of the Arizona State game. Scoring has always been Brooks' forte but there's a big difference between him playing and trying to score from the point guard position instead of the two spot. From the point, he would oftentimes hurry bad shots and keep his team off balance and out of their offensive sets. Now, at the two, he's running off screens and such which keep the entire team active and in the game.
OFFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN
The only reason this is even is that I do think Arizona is in a bit of a funk with their shooting right now. For some reason, Ivan Radenovic has come out a bit tentative in the first half of the games against Wazzu and Oregon State. As a result, he's passing up open shots and completely disorienting his teammates who are expecting him to shoot the ball when he's open at 12-15 feet. Similarly, Jawann McClellan seems to be aiming his jumpers a bit and as a result his shots are hitting the front rim and not the back of it. As a shooting guard myself, I know exactly what this feels like. You have a great scoring/shooting night like JMac did against Washington and then instead of just continuing to play (free from thought) you start to ask yourself what you did right in that game and you try to mimic that stroke which turns your jumper into a mechanical, short-armed nightmare. JMac will be fine and tonight's contest could be the game where he gets it back going. His legs look great (the monster two hand slam over that poor Beaver tells me he's getting some serious strength back), so I don't think the missed jumpers are a physical thing. If Arizona can get their usual production out of JMac and Radenovic, then the offensive edge clearly goes back to Arizona as Williams, Shakur and Budinger have no equals on Oregon.
I've been a strong supporter of Arizona's renewed interest on the defensive side of the ball this season, but my prediction that Arizona's defense would help them separate from the Cougars and the Beavers have gotten me into trouble recently. Arizona has returned to their at times lackadaisical ways that have resulted in their opponents getting far too many open looks at the basket. Fortunately, these lapses are few and far between but they do seem to occur in two to three minute stretches that enable teams to go on mini-runs to tighten the score. With the extra days rest, I expect to see Arizona get after it a little bit on the defense. They'll sorely miss the bruising play of Brett Brielmaier down low because of Oregon's size inside. This means that Jordan Hill will have to figure out a way to help out Radenovic against the Oregon big men without fouling.
Arizona's starting five creates some serious defensive mismatches for Oregon if they try to man up the Wildcats. Still, the Ducks are athletic at the guard and small forward spots so they will present some challenges. How well Arizona shoots the ball will determine how effective the Ducks defense is as I don't expect them to do anything that will stymie or take the Wildcats out of their offense. Oregon does not deny passing lanes well and because of their size they don't really try to front the post. Because of this though they rebound well, rotate well and are able to recover quickly if their defense is broken down by an overly active offense. This means that Arizona will, at times, have to shoot over the Ducks in order to loosen things up inside.
DEFENSIVE EDGE: EVEN
Again, until Arizona can prove to me on the court that they are willing to commit to playing defense for long stretches, I have to consider this aspect of the game even. Arizona's had some decent runs in the last two games (they opened the Oregon State game on a 10-0 run), but they haven't been of the 18-2, 25-0 or 17-1 variety that they have reeled off in almost every other game this season. What gets overshadowed during these runs is how well the Wildcats are playing on defense because they are usually stroking threes are putting the ball home with electrifying fast break dunks. The defense hasn't been entirely there against Wazzu and Oregon State and hence, the runs have also been a bit absent. Oregon is the perfect team to put a run on because they can easily, almost willingly, get baited into an up tempo, frenetic pace that gets them shooting shots early in the shot clock. Expect Arizona to employ their zone defense a lot against the Ducks who went nearly seven minutes without a field goal against Arizona State when the Sun Devils went to the zone.
"The Bud is back," as Jay Z would sort of say. Olson and company have been on Budinger to get back to his attacking ways on the boards and he did just that against the Beaver, pulling down 10. Tonight's game will be wide open at times, meaning that Budinger will have many more opportunities to his the offensive glass for a few mop up points. He'll join teammates Williams and Radenovic who continue to average more than 7 rebounds a game each. For the season, Arizona as a team is averaging 38.4 boards per game but will only reach that figure tonight if they get contributions from Shakur and McClellan as well.
Oregon is also averaging 38.4 rebounds per game but while Arizona's statistic is the product of a more team effort, Oregon's is primarily the result of Maarty Leunen's astounding average of 10 boards per game. Leunen is a beast on the glass and on the defensive end as he has hounded opponents' best scorers in almost every game. Oregon likes to use their big men to gather the attention of their opponents which allows their athletic wingmen and guards to sneak in and snatch up a lot of boards and loose balls. This strategy may work against Arizona as I expect the Wildcats to be in a zone defense most of the night which is always difficult to rebound from since no one is assigned to a specific man.
REBOUNDING EDGE: EVEN
The numbers don't lie. These two teams are very similar in all aspects of the game, especially rebounding. Arizona is the better team, but right now they might not be. Rebounding is difficult to predict in a game of this sort because if both teams are hot from the field, which they could very well be, there just won't be many opportunities for either team to full away from the other. Conversely, if these teams decide to get after it on defense, then there could be missed shots galore and plenty of opportunities to separate by hitting the offensive glass for second and third chance points. I'm like a broken record today with leaving so much on the table until tip off but like I've repeated, until I see the effort on the court I just can't give the edge to Arizona right now. The good news is we'll know right away which Arizona team has come to play as the first five minutes will go a long way in telling how this thing turns out. Forget about the score though. Arizona could be down 10 and that is not what I'm talking about. Watch each player and try to determine if they're focused and into the game or night. Forget about results for a few minutes and just see if they're mentally in this thing. If they are, Arizona will win this one at home.
The team that's most committed tonight will win as neither can afford to simply step on the court and rely on their athleticism, size or even strength to win. Both teams are top notch and in no way are overrated. If anything, they're both underrated but that's a whole other story that's yet to be written.
Oregon clearly struggled against ASU's zone so I expect Arizona to go to theirs often tonight. They'll have to extend it though as Brooks has proved this season that no shot is too far from the basket for him to pull the trigger. Similarly, forward Chamberlain Oguchi has proved time and again to be a thorn in the side of the Wildcats as he always seems to save his best for the Wildcats. In a shooter friendly arena like McKale Center, don't be surprised to see Oregon make some wild shots with a hand in their face.
The good news is Arizona gets to shoot in this same shooter friendly facility. McClellan will again get plenty of looks against the Ducks. If he's on, he'll be the difference maker as I expect Williams to have another stellar game. Similarly, I expect Shakur to really create havoc for the Ducks as they struggle to find someone to guard him. If they go with Porter or Brooks, expect Shakur to post them up when they're in man.
This game will go down to the wire. Oregon is such a tough place to steal a game from when they play at their famed Mac Court because of their fans. Arizona will need theirs to get them energized to play defense down the stretch. They should get that extra motivation and if they do, they'll also get the win.
ARIZONA 85 Oregon 80