by Rob Moseley
After a five-game losing streak in mid-January, the Oregon men's basketball would seem to have righted its ship, with two wins in three games.
A victory at Washington State was followed by a two-point loss to UCLA in the final seconds, then a resounding win over USC in which the Ducks played some of their best defense of the season. All good, right?
Not so fast, says a veteran Oregon team with significant big-picture goals.
"Right now we're just hoping to get the next win," UO senior Mike Moser said. "We get two this week, maybe then we can call it a hot streak."
Certainly, that would be something to celebrate. Because this is arguably the toughest week on Oregon's Pac-12 schedule. The Ducks (15-6, 3-6 Pac-12) face No. 2 Arizona on the road Thursday at 6 p.m. (ESPN), then play at Arizona State on Saturday at 2 p.m. (Fox Sports 1).
For a UO team clinging to faint NCAA tournament hopes, it's damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.
"We're definitely going to take it right at them," Moser said. "Nobody on this team's afraid of anybody, so that's what we're going to do."
Thursday's game at Arizona (21-1, 8-1) pits the Ducks against the nation's former No. 1 team, looking to rebound from its first loss, on a buzzer beater by Cal. The Wildcats are the Pac-12's top defensive team, allowing 56.8 points per game, while Oregon leads the conference in offense at 84.7 points per game.
The Ducks will look for a more consistent effort Thursday, having not exceeded 80 points in six straight games while various players have fought through mini-slumps. That won't be easy against the Wildcats.
"Defensively I think they're as good as we've faced," UO coach Dana Altman said. "Sean (Miller) has always done a good job defensively with his ballclubs, but when you add in the athleticism and size of this group, defensively they're very good."
The Wildcats start 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski in the post, along with former UO recruit Aaron Gordon, who goes 6-9, and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is 6-7 and figures to make his third start of the year after Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in the Cal game.
Others could factor into the rotation as the Wildcats move on without Ashley, but Altman anticipates Hollis-Jefferson picking up the lion's share of the load.
"They've got a lot of good players, and a lot of good players probably waiting for an opportunity," the UO coach said. "It's not like they'll be looking down the bench going, 'what do we do?'"
Considering the loss of Ashley, Moser said a key Thursday will be trying to get Arizona into foul trouble. Oregon lacks the size of Cal, which beat Arizona last week, and Stanford, which lost to the Wildcats by three, but it remains the Ducks' intent to be aggressive in the paint.
"I think we're ready for the physicality," Moser said. "It's really gonna be who can play the hardest for 40 minutes."
The Ducks also anticipate that Arizona could be out to prove itself, after suffering its first loss.
"It could be more dangerous," UO guard Johnathan Loyd said. "But we're going to go in there, compete, swing away and see what happens."
One of the punches Oregon could try to throw is the use of a press defense, which forced 22 turnovers by USC last week. Arizona boasts a cagey point guard in T.J. McConnell, who averages 5.6 assists per game, so the Ducks may need to be judicious in their use of the press this week.
"With the strength they have at the guards, and experience, I don't know how much you're going to get them to turn it over," Altman said. "But we've always talked about our press as just controlling tempo, trying to wear people down a little bit.
"Turnovers are icing on the cake. And if you really gear your presses to the turnovers, you really expose yourself on the other end, which our guys have a tendency to do."
Taking a few chances could end up being worth the risk, however, for a UO team looking to build back up a résumé worth of NCAA tournament consideration.
"That's a résumé win, if we can get that," Moser said. "And I think we all understand how important that is, too. … I feel like the maturity level of this team can handle that."
Altman, on the other hand, joked that: "It shows how much those guys listen. I told them not to worry about that stuff, and just worry about the next game.
Perhaps the Ducks can do both, focusing on what they need to do for the sake of a single win Thursday, with the understanding it would also have implications far beyond a single game.
"This is a big week for us," Loyd said. "To get back on track and kind of make a statement."