While so much of the focus in college basketball Thursday is on Duke-North Carolina, Oregon-UCLA just might actually be the bigger game. The showdown at Pauley Pavilion features two Top 10 teams, and if their first matchup (which ended on a Dillon Brooks buzzer-beater) is any indication, it could also be one of the most exciting games of the season.
It’s also one of the most important games remaining on the schedule, one which could decide the Pac-12 regular season title and factor into NCAA Tournament seeding. Here are five things to keep an eye entering Thursday night’s game.
How much of an aberration was Oregon’s dominant victory over Arizona last weekend?
While Oregon’s win over Arizona last weekend was one of the biggest statement victories any club has had all year, it was also a bit of an aberration. It was one of those games where everything that could go right for the Ducks did, as they shot a staggering 65 percent from the field (they average 48 percent on the year) and made 16 of 25 three-pointers.
It’s almost impossible to think that the Ducks can replicate that performance, but they’re going to need some semblance of it to win Thursday night. Oregon is playing the most offensively gifted team in college basketball (the Bruins average 93 points per game, which is second in the country) and even though Oregon already beat UCLA at home this season, it’s a game they could have easily lost. In that game UCLA actually outshot Oregon (53 percent to 44 percent) and was in position to win until the final seconds. If the Bruins had just tightened a few things up (including 14 turnovers) they probably would have emerged victorious.
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How will the Ducks handle a tough road environment?
As impressive as the Ducks have been this year (and you could argue that once they got Brooks back from injury they’ve been the most consistent team in the country) one place they’ve struggled is away from Matthew Knight Arena. Although they’re 21-3 overall, Oregon is just 3-2 in true road games.
Those results are mostly understandable (the Ducks first loss was at Baylor, the second on the second leg of the vaunted “Rocky Mountain road trip” at Colorado) but that doesn’t change the fact that the Ducks simply haven’t been the same team away from Eugene as they have been at home. Nor does it change the fact that their matchup with UCLA at Pauley Pavilion will take place in the toughest road environment Oregon has played in all season long.
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How will UCLA’s freshmen perform?
The narrative that UCLA’s freshmen “saved” the Bruins this season is a bit overblown (veterans like Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton and others have all played big roles) but there is no doubt the team’s freshmen are important to the team's success. There’s also no doubt that each is playing some of his best basketball of the season.
We all know about Lonzo Ball, who is coming off arguably his most complete game of the season last Saturday against Washington (he finished with 22 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals) but what’s easy to forget is that T.J. Leaf had the best game of his career on the same road trip. He had 32 points and 14 boards last Thursday against Washington State.
Most importantly, don’t sleep on the importance of UCLA’s third freshman, Ike Anigbogu. The Ducks are the most athletic and skilled team the Bruins will play all year, and Anigbogu is by far the most athletic and physical post player UCLA has. He’s coming off a quietly impressive performance at Washington where he tallied six points and eight rebounds in just 10 minutes of play.
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This game has major Pac-12 title implications for both teams
The Pac-12 is quietly one of the most compelling conferences in college basketball, as Arizona and Oregon are tied for the conference lead. UCLA (as well as Cal) is a full two games behind, meaning a loss here would all but eliminate their shot at a regular season Pac-12 title.
But although Oregon is atop the standings, a loss here would be equally as devastating. Since the Ducks don’t play Arizona the rest of the season they would lose control of their own destiny in the Pac-12 title chase, with tough games remaining at USC and at Cal still to come. Arizona on the other hand still has UCLA and USC, but play both at home.
This game has even bigger NCAA seeding implications
More than just Pac-12 title implications, the real story here is NCAA Tournament seeding. Both teams desperately need this win, for entirely different reasons.
UCLA currently sits as a four-seed in FOX Sports’ most recent bracket, and as my colleague Stew Mandel points out, still carry just two RPI Top 50 wins. Their “best” win of the season (at Kentucky) also gets less impressive by the day, meaning there’s a realistic shot that if they don’t win here, they could drop all the way to a five-seed in FOX’s next bracket. The Ducks currently sit as a two-seed but with enough wins (and some losses by other teams around the country) could creep onto that top line.
It would all start with a win Thursday against UCLA, just one of many reasons to watch.