VEGAS, The Pac-12 Tournament, March 11th --
The final is set here in Las Vegas, and it's the rematch we've been waiting for -- Oregon/Arizona. These two have proven a clear separation between themselves and the rest of the conference over three months of play, now it's time to finally decide who will get to claim supremacy in the Conference of Champions.
Oregon earned their spot in the final thanks to a grueling, industrial effort over Cal. The Golden Bears weren't really supposed to be in this spot, and, with star guard Jabari Bird out early in the action with a possible concussion, looked to be at long odds to survive 40 minutes with the vaunted Ducks. But they battled ferociously all night, even cutting the lead to two points with 45 seconds to play. UO would not be denied, however, with Dylan Ennis throwing the team on his back to secure the winning points. In the end, the 73-65 scoreline belies how close Oregon really was to coughing this one up.
The second half here was a weird one. The Ducks were robbed of the services of star point forward Dillon Brooks as he was called for his fourth foul as part of a bizarre stretch of five called on one Cal possession early in the frame. That staccato burst of whistles knee-capped the game, sending it into a listless spiral of empty possessions as both teams looked to make sense of the new landscape on the court. Play would eventually recover, as Ennis and Tyler Dorsey began to pick up the slack in Brooks' absence. Ennis, especially, seemed to fill the Brooksian role, barrelling into the lane to force the defense to react and open up shooters. Dorsey was all too happy to oblige, and he started nail repeated attempts from the field. In all, the young shooting guard would finish with 23 points on 13 attempts, with Ennis finding five assists.
Oregon needed everything those two could provide, as Grant Mullins couldn't miss. The senior specialist for Cal was 5-5 from deep, and kept the Golden Bears in the game, despite their at times archaic offense. It wasn't enough, though, to overcome sputtering play from Ivan Rabb and Charlie Moore, the inside-outside duo that had generally fueled whatever California got in the regular season. With those two struggling to inconsistent 9-23 shooting, there were simply too many empty possessions for the Bears against a quality opponent.
Those Ducks will face the Wildcats this evening after they spent 40 minutes suffocating the life out of UCLA. The second half itself was a treatise on frustrative offense for the Bruins, with then repeatedly failing to find any traction against the Arizona 'D.' I didn't think it could happen, at least not so easily, but they were completely shut down. All credit to the 'Cats, then -- they earned their 86-75 victory.
The Bruins, considered by some to be the best offensive club in a generation, were abysmal from the field, shooting just 16% from behind the arc. Arizona wasn't completely to blame, with the Bruins forcing some heedless takes and missing some open looks, but it's hard not to note that UCLA's best weapon - the three-point shot - was almost completely taken away by a team that prides itself on defense. You could see the exasperation on the faces of the Bruins' shooters, especially Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford. That pair, usually so effusive, combined for just 13 points and 2-16 shooting from deep. Ball was, himself, visibly shaken in the first half, focusing on a jammed finger and struggling with turnovers. If Arizona can do that to Lonzo, in contention for the top pick in this summer's NBA Draft, then they should have high hopes in the coming Tournament.
For the 'Cats, probably their best takeaway from the evening was the play of Lauri Markkanen. The big Finnish shooting star has finally seemed to break a weeks-long shooting slump here in Las Vegas, first against Colorado, then against the Bruins. He got 29 Friday night on 22 shots, and seemed to be much more comfortable and aggressive with his shot than in previous weeks. Parker Jackson-Cartwright, though, also deserves a lot of credit. Every time the Bruins tried to drop into zone, his speed and ability to knife past the top-line kept UCLA's 3-2 from having any shot of taking effect.
All things considered, the pair of games could've been better (they certainly didn't live up to the legacy of last year's Pac-12 Final Four). UCLA, for sure, could've played much better than they did to help the evening game reach expectations. But the final is the one that makes the most sense for the league, and the one that should give us out truest champion. Can't wait for tip!
Best pep band of the day: Oregon
I'm going to give it to the Ducks over Arizona, though it was close. Both of these bands made their competition across the stadium pale in comparison, playing good music loudly and with good energy. The Ducks, though, had I thought the far superior bass player, and I'm a sucker for someone who lays down the funk.
- #2 Arizona vs #1 Oregon - 9pm MT - ESPN -
The previous meeting between these two was, of course, a massive blowout in Eugene. There was no return trip to McKale, however, meaning this pseudo-home game in a red-packed T-Mobile Arena will have to suffice for the Wildcats.
I really like the way Arizona has played this week. They've been hitting their shots, playing great defense, and Sean Miller seems to have an excellent grasp of his rotation when to pull the trigger on situational changes. Oregon, conversely, has seemed, at times, to be going through the motions against teams they should be blitzing. Arizona, then, seems to have the rhythm advantage, but I have never liked the way they matchup against the Ducks. Boucher and Bell have the length and athleticism to negate Markkanen, and I'll take Dillon Brooks over Alonzo Trier every day at this level. To that end, if Brooks can stay in the game, avoiding foul trouble, I expect Oregon to win. If not, the wave of depth in the paint that Arizona can leverage should hold sway. Keep an eye on that foul count.
GO DUCKS! PROVE ME RIGHT, AND REPEAT!