By Manny Nunez
Minutes before Arizona’s 83-80 Pac-12 Championship win over Oregon, the Ducks announced Chris Boucher would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL during their win over Cal on Friday night. In no instance did it seem as if there would be any uprising of this caliber before tipoff, and yet, all the hype led to Arizona.
Instead, it turned out to be much more competitive than anyone expected after the Boucher injury totally called for a readjustment of the Ducks’ chemistry. Dillon Brooks, though in foul trouble for most of the second half, anchored the offense. Tyler Dorsey, who had a monstrous game himself last night, carried over that momentum and answered the calling when his team became down a star player.
The Wildcats transferred their play to a team effort and were able to take a lead midway through the first half and never let it go. After expanding their lead to 10 points in the late stages, the Ducks clawed their way back and made it a contest. Arizona walked away from the T-Mobile Arena as the Pac-12 champions, but had to survive a late Oregon rally that saw the Ducks with numerous chances to at least tie the contest late in the game.
“Our offense has really gone to another level,” Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said. “It’s difficult to win three games in three days in this kind of tournament. When you beat a quality team like UCLA last night and then Oregon tonight, it speaks volumes about the Pac-12 conference.”
— Arizona Basketball (@APlayersProgram) March 12, 2017
Arizona is a much more complete basketball team than even Miller expected when he recruited his underclassmen. Having Lauri Markkanen on the court is a presence that hardly anyone can stop. Oregon found a way to contain his takes, something that UCLA could not find an answer to. Allonzo Trier as always frequently dominates the court for Arizona, whereas Markkanen has now ended up as the Wildcats fan favorite. Surrounding these two teams are high end talent that will be a much tougher out than usual.
Brooks and Dorsey picked up a lot of the slack offensively, they received a lot of help defensively. Sparking up a comeback, they were able to force 14 turnovers with nine steals to keep things close. Their only downfall was forcing Altman’s starters to play longer than usual. Four of his starters ended up playing more than 30 minutes, forcing him to change up a lot of the game plan to rotate his players. Tyler Ennis nearly played a full 40-minute game, making a difference when the Ducks needed a lot of help inside as the Wildcats managed to win the boards and dominate the paint.
“The difference of the basketball game was the start of the second half,” Altman said. “There were a number of shots we couldn’t hit and the Wildcats just ran with it. I loved how our guys battled back. We put ourselves in position when our press worked the wait it did. We just didn’t get it done enough to get the win.”
How to now move forward without Boucher will be the challenge that Altman and the Ducks face as they will open the NCAA Tournament either Thursday or Friday in a yet to be named location.
“Chris is a talented young man,” Altman commented, “An injury like that sadly is a part of any season and it can happen at any time. I feel really bad for Chris. It was a big blow for our team. He is the one guy that picks everybody up. We just had to get ready to go and I felt like our guys did as much as we could.”
Still, it isn’t much of a shock that the Ducks hung around as long as they could. They can score, and it showed in the final 10 minutes when they finally found their stroke. One of the biggest threats the Ducks have is the amount of scorers they have on their team. If one has an off night, there are many others than can pick up the slack. Regardless of what happened tonight, they could be a tougher out than last year in March.
“I thought at times taking aggression at the basket brought our game back,” Altman said. “There were a lot of instances where we had some great possessions. It is a game like this where we remember how energetic we are and carry on with this feeling.”
Arizona has become a much more unified force. Four players finished in double figures aside from Trier who led the way with a team high of 23 points and the tournament MVP. However, Trier became an impact within a game after being sidelined for the first few months of the season.
“Allonzo is a big part of our team, and he was active just as much off the court in his absence as he was on the court,” Miller said. “He stayed the course throughout the year and hung in there. For him, it became a dream cone true. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way than for him to walk away as the top player in the tournament.”
Regardless, Miller and the rest of the team have very well respected the talent they have seen to get to this point, and it has developed to what they have become. Parker Jackson-Cartwright last season was the only big time athlete to return, but he has become second nature around the high-end talent that was recruited.
“Parker isn’t getting guarded as much as he was used to, and it’s what made our team much more unified,” Miller said. “When he is in the game, he sparks our transition and is one of the team’s best defenders. His growth and development to make the team stronger has shown.”
Now with the game out of the way, both teams will be sweating more about where they will end up more than the number next to their school. One thing is for certain: both of these teams will be a very hard out come tournament time if they play as they had on Saturday.
It will be interesting where these two teams will end up and the kind of road they will have to follow. Oregon last season ran out of gas with nearly the same talent, but it arguably is much better this year. Arizona was incomplete when they entered the picture.