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Pac 12 Conference Final Preview and Open Thread: A (Contrasting) Tale of Two Programs

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The preseason favorite faces off against a well-coached team that many thought would not contend for the PAC 12 title.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Well, our UCLA Bruins wilted down the stretch last night.  The non-continuation foul on NP4 when the Bruins were up 47-42 and could have been up 49-42 or 50-42, if Norman made the free throw, was critical.  The Bruins did not score off the inbound pass, and Arizona hit a three, cutting the UCLA lead to 47-45, completely changing the momentum and leading to U of A's decisive run.  Later that night, the Oregon Ducks hit a looooooong buzzer beater to edge out the Utah Utes, so now we are looking at a PAC 12 Final between Arizona and Oregon.

So, while Utah waits for its seeding in the "Big Dance," and UCLA hopes and prays for a bid for the privilege of a play-in game in Dayton, welcome to your preview of the PAC 12 Conference Final Preview.

THE TEAMS

The Arizona Wildcats

Arizona came into the season ranked #2 in the Associated Press poll, expected to win the PAC 12 regular season title, and expected to challenge for the national championship. They have not failed to live up to their expectations. At 30-3, Arizona is now ranked #5 in the Associated Press poll and is on the brink of a #1 seed in the West, with #2 ranked Duke and #3 ranked Virginia falling in the ACC tournament yesterday (although some ACC homers will continue to shill for an ACC team as a #1 seed). A win should get the Wildcats the #1 seeding in the West. A loss and they are still a #2 seed in West. Arizona has won 16 of its last 17, with its only loss a close one against rival Arizona State at Tempe. Arizona has not lost at home this season, and the MGM Grand Garden Arena is going be awash in a sea of red, feeling and sounding just like the friendly confines of the McKale Center.

The ‘Cats are talented across the board. Freshman small forward, Stanley Johnson (PAC 12 Freshman of the Year and PAC 12 All Conference First Team), is expected to be a lottery pick if he decides to forego the remainder of his college eligibility after this season. Johnson had a very nice line against UCLA in the semi-finals, with 15 points and 9 boards, including 3 offensive boards (IMHO, Arizona’s second half offensive rebounding was the difference in the UCLA game, but I digress). Sophomore forward, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, also a PAC 12 All Conference First Teamer and also expected to be a first round NBA pick, crushed the Bruins on the boards (12 total, 5 offensive), while chipping in 8 points. Brandon Ashley, another junior forward, is coming off a career high 24 points against UCLA, on 9 of 11 shooting. Arizona also gets very good guard play out of T.J. McConnell (another PAC 12 All Conference First Teamer) and Gabe York, and has a solid inside presence at center, Kaleb Tarczewski. As the stakes have ratcheted up, Arizona’s bench production has gone down. Outside of York, Arizona’s bench only logged 11 minutes against UCLA, resulting in 2 points.

Arizona plays outstanding defense. They hustle, are very athletic, and rebound very well (they are second in the nation in team rebounding percentage, trailing only the college hoops powerhouse known as Quinnipiac). If the Wildcats have a weakness, it is that their offense goes on hiatus at times, as we saw at times in the UCLA game. Arizona Head Coach Sean Miller has taken some criticism about his offense. Specifically, that he rolls the ball out onto the court and relies on the sheer talent he has recruited to put the ball in the hoop from time to time and play outstanding defense. There is no doubt that he recruits outstanding athletes, but the jury is out on whether his team can put it all together. Arizona has been to the PAC 12 Conference Championship in four of the last five seasons, but has no trophy to show for it. Can Miller motivate this team, which has its sights set on more valuable hardware?

The Oregon Ducks

Oregon (25-8 overall; 13-5 in PAC 12 Play), predicted at PAC 12 media day to finish 8th in the conference, has overachieved under Head Coach Dana Altman. Since losing to Arizona at Arizona on January 28th, Oregon has won 11 of 12 games, with the sole loss being to UCLA at Pauley. Win or lose, this has been a successful tournament for Oregon, which is already a lock for the "Big Dance" and is looking at anywhere between a 4 and a 7 seed, IMHO, depending on the result against Arizona.

Oregon is led by PAC 12 Player of the Year, Joseph Young, who proved he was as good as advertised by draining a NBA length 3 pointer with less than 2 seconds left to lift Oregon into the title game, 67-64. High drama indeed. Young is one of two returning players from last year’s squad (Elgin Cook being the other), which saw the other 7 highest scorers from last season leave school, either due to graduation, transfer, or dismissal for sexual abuse allegations. Young, a senior 6’2" guard who, interestingly, does not appear to be getting a lot of NBA draft buzz, averages over 20 points a game.

Oregon also gets solid production from Cook, a small forward who averages 13 points and 5 boards a game. Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks, Ahmaad Rorie, and Casey Benson are all freshman who average in excess of 30 minutes a game. Brooks, a forward, averages over 11 points per game and starts. The other 3 freshmen typically come off the bench, although Bell started over Dwayne Benjamin in the Utah game, playing only 15 minutes to Benjamin’s 31 minutes.

Dana Altman, the PAC 12 Coach of the Year, has done a fantastic job with this team. With such a large player exodus, he has managed to get extensive production from a handful of freshmen, and goaded Young to a higher level. I expect Altman to have his team motivated. They can move up a few seeds with a win tonight.

The MATCHUP

This game features the two highest scoring offenses in the PAC 12. Where Arizona matches up well with Oregon is in the defensive department, with Arizona ranked #2 in scoring defense in the PAC 12 and Oregon ranked #8. Arizona took the game at Eugene 80-62 in early January, and blew the Ducks out of Tucson in late January, 90-56. In both games, Arizona held Young well under his season average, at 12 points each game (4 of 15 and 4 of 9 shooting, respectively). As mentioned above, the Ducks have transformed into a different team since then, with their only loss at UCLA, and two wins against Utah.

Arizona however, is the far superior rebounding team (in part due to their height and length advantage over Oregon), winning the rebounding battle 40-27 in the first game and 34-20 in the second game against Oregon. In games when Bell (6’9") does not start, Oregon’s tallest starter is the 6’7" Benjamin. Oregon’s other forwards, Cook and Brooks, are only 6’6". Arizona’s starters, on the other hand, are 7’0", 6’9", a pair of 6’7"s, and the 6’1" McConnell. Expect the 'Cats to exploit the size advantage by trying to get points in the paint, or playing an "inside outside game" to get their guards open looks for 3.

For Oregon to have success, Young will have to do better than in previous matchups and, to his credit, his confidence has to be sky-high after last night. Oregon will also likely need to play a fast-tempo game to counter Arizona’s height, length, and rebounding advantages. Arizona will likely play the same type of methodical game on offense that we saw at UCLA, to exploit their advantages.

Neither team got a break last night. Both teams had to play their best players until the end. Fatigue could be a factor, which I believe favors Oregon, which has a bit deeper bench, IMHO.

THE PREDICTION

Even with all of Oregon’s improvement over the second half of the season, Arizona is still the hotter of the two teams, record-wise. Oregon should come out loose, feeling like there is no pressure on them, with an us-against-the-world mentality in a hostile environment. This should help but, ultimately, I think Arizona’s defense is going to be too much for the Ducks. I predict the Wildcats over the Ducks, 76-62, with the ‘Cats pulling away from a tight game early in the second half, and maintaining a comfortable lead over the final ten minutes.

Tip off is at 8:00 p.m. Pacific time, and will be broadcast on ESPN. This is your Pac-12 Championship Game open thread.