EUGENE, Ore.- It is not often that the Oregon basketball team hosts a top-five opponent. So rare in fact, that Thursdays’ opponent might just be the best to play in the new Matthew Knight Arena.
The Arizona Wildcats (14-0, 2-0), ranked third in the USA Today Coaches’ poll and fourth in the Associated Press poll, will be the highest ranked team to visit Matthew Knight, in the venues three-year existence. Might this be the biggest game yet to be played there?
“It does [seem like it],” said senior guard Johnathan Loyd. “Just because this is the highest ranked team to come in the building and this is the start of Pac-12 and they’re undefeated.”
That sentiment is not universally shared, especially with coach Dana Altman, who like his football-coaching counterpart Chip Kelly, prefers to give each game equal importance.
“Johnny doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I talk about the team being so quiet, Johnny is the one guy who talks, but he doesn’t always say the right things,” Altman joked. “We’ve got nine conference games at home, all of them are very important.”
Even if it’s not the biggest game in the history of the new arena, it will be the biggest game the Ducks have played versus Arizona in it. It’s the first time the Wildcats have played in state-of-the-art facility, after playing one of the final games in historic McCarthur Court in 2010 and not travelling to Eugene in 2011.
But historical significance aside, Thursday’s game versus the Wildcats will provide the Ducks (12-2, 1-0) the biggest challenge of the young season.
Arizona is not without a loss this season for a reason. The Wildcats present a blend of veteran backcourt players and ultra-athletic youngsters up front. Defensively they’re relentless, using their length to force turnovers, often times pressuring the full length of the court.
“They press teams at the end of the game. That’s how they got two of their wins against Colorado and Florida,” said forward Arsalan Kazemi. Kazemi, a transfer from Rice, played them twice, losing each game by double-figures. “They never quit playing. They always play hard.”
Xavier-transfer Mark Lyons is the team’s leading scorer. After earning All-Atlantic 10 honors, Lyons left the Musketeers and ended up in Arizona. Thus far he’s been a game changer.
“He’s real quick, fast in transition and he’s real deceptive with the ball in terms of he might try to lull me to sleep and then just shoot on me really fast,” Loyd said.
But possibly more importantly, he’s the team’s big-shot maker, something that has been of great use to the Wildcats, in their multitude of close games. Each of their last three games has been one-possession games late in regulation and Lyons came through in each.
“You have to play them for 40 minutes. You can’t just play 20 minutes or 35 minutes or 39 minutes. We have to play the full 40 minutes against them,” said Kazemi of Arizona’s ability to win tight ball games, often in come-from-behind fashion.
Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson make up the rest of a veteran backcourt, that contributes on average 40 of the team’s 77 points per contest. Hill is a versatile forward, who had played in the post the past few seasons, but has moved to the perimeter to allow three highly-touted freshmen to play inside. It has worked thus far, as Hill is second on the team in scoring and third in rebounding.
The three freshmen post players, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett, were all five-star recruits according to Scout and have each played big minutes for the Wildcats this season.
At 7-feet-0, Tarczewski is the Wildcats tallest player, but the big is also surprisingly agile and an adept scorer.
Despite the infusion of athletic bigs, Kazemi isn’t sure that will be an advantage for Arizona, but when teamed up with Lyons, Johnson and Hill, the Wildcats combined athleticism is dangerous.
“We have a lot of athletic guys as well. So I don’t think that’s going to hurt us,” he said. “When they have five players who are really athletic that means we have to put a body on them. We can’t just give them an easy drive to get to the basket.”
During the Sunday’s halftime, Altman had to put a spark in his players, saying after that he “lost his composure”. While playing such a highly-rated team will give the Ducks an extra boost, Altman, who is 1-2 at Oregon versus Arizona, but 3-1 versus the Wildcats’ head coach Sean Miller from their days at Creighton and Xavier, isn’t expecting the emotion to be too high for his young guys.
“Knowing our team I’m not too worried about that [being over-excited],” he said. “Our guys are pretty quiet. I think they’ll be ready to go. I think they’ll be excited about the challenge. It’s not a team I’ve had to worry about settling down.”
The Ducks and Wildcats clash Thursday at 6 p.m. at Matthew Knight Arena. The game will be televised on ESPN 2 with Dave Pasch and Bill Walton on the call.