Oregon rode big shots late against Arizona, including a three from Johnathan Lloyd. (Chris Pietsch/AP)
On January 5, Oregon lost at then-No. 20 Colorado. It was the Ducks’ first loss of the season, and when one considered what came before – 13 consecutive wins – it didn’t seem like Oregon was in too much trouble. But that loss started a stretch in which the Ducks lost eight of 10 games, including five in a row between January 5 and January 23. After the Ducks fell 74-72 at Arizona State on February 8, what once seemed unthinkable was a very legitimate concern: would Oregon miss the NCAA Tournament?
The selection committee will have a hard time keeping the Ducks out of the field after they beat RPI No. 1 and AP No. 3 Arizona, 64-57, Saturday in Eugene.
Guard Jason Calliste scored 18 points off the bench for the Ducks, while forward Mike Moser scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and point guard Johnathan Loyd had 16 points, two rebounds and three steals. Wildcats forward Aaron Gordon made two free throws with just under eight minutes to go to give his team a six-point lead, but Calliste drilled a three less than a minute later, prompting the Wildcats to call timeout. Oregon pulled within two at the six-minute mark when forward Ben Carter tipped a missed three by Calliste out to guard Joseph Young, who buried a triple. Calliste and Loyd took over from there, scoring 11 points over the final five minutes to put the game out of reach.
If you’ve watched any of Arizona’s losses this season, you know what happened next: the Duck faithful stormed the court. Of course, the motivation to celebrate amounted to more than the joy of beating one of the best teams in the country. The win means Oregon, almost certainly, will receive an invitation to the Big Dance.
The Ducks wouldn’t have been in position to essentially clinch an at-large berth Saturday had it not rattled off six wins over the past three weeks. The aforementioned loss at Arizona State dropped the Ducks’ Pac-12 record to 3-8. Eight days later, Oregon beat Oregon State, then handled the pair of Washington schools. The Ducks’ win last Thursday at UCLA, under normal circumstances, would have been massive, but the Bruins were without their two best players (forward Kyle Anderson and guard Jordan Adams). A win in the return game against Arizona State on Tuesday set the table for Saturday’s fate-altering matchup.
During its six-game winning streak, Oregon began to resemble the team many pegged as a Pac-12 championship contender earlier in the season. Arizona coach Sean Miller knew entering Saturday his team wasn’t facing the same Oregon that looked headed for the NIT in January. “They’re the team now that they were at the beginning of the year,” Miller said Friday, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Saturday’s game proved that Miller’s description was apt.
The loss halts Arizona’s five-game winning streak, but the Wildcats are still in line to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and remain a viable national championship contender. Some observers were quick to write off Sean Miller’s team when sophomore forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury early in Arizona’s loss at Cal on February 1, but the Wildcats had since lost only once (to rival Arizona State) before Saturday. Over their last four contests entering Saturday, the Wildcats scored an average of 1.22 points per possession, well above their average (1.08) in conference play. Arizona is still defending at an elite level, too; the 0.94 PPP they’ve allowed over their last four games would rank first among Pac-12 teams if recorded over the entire conference season (Arizona State, owner of the league’s second-stingiest per-possession D, has yielded 0.995).
Pac-12 champion Arizona is the odds-on favorite to win the conference tournament, which begins Wednesday. But no Pac-12 team has more momentum right now than Oregon. This is beginning to look like the team Ducks fans had such high hopes for in November and December.