by Rob Moseley
With talk that as many as seven or even eight Pac-12 teams could make the NCAA Tournament, the conference is garnering respect nationally in this final week of the regular season.
That hasn't always been the case this season, as the likes of UCLA, California and Oregon have experienced dramatic highs and lows. An exception has been Arizona, the No. 1 team in the country until the midway point of the season, and currently No. 3.
"They have represented the league about as well as any team could," UO coach Dana Altman said. "They've been in the top five all year, they've won big games — they've just been a great representative for our league. So we all owe Arizona something.
"They've done a great job, and the rest of us have been tagging along a little bit. Hopefully here at the end of the season all of us can do something special to help the league, but Arizona's really carried the flag the entire year."
Irony of ironies, Oregon could do something special of its own for the league — all but assure itself an NCAA Tournament berth — by knocking off those very same Wildcats. The Ducks host Arizona in the final regular season game of the year, Saturday in Matthew Knight Arena (1 p.m. PT, CBS).
The Wildcats (28-2, 15-2) will try to end the Ducks' six-game winning streak. Following the game, Oregon (21-8, 9-8 Pac-12) will honor a seven-player senior class playing its final home game.
"It's their last game in this arena, and I'm pretty sure they're going to have emotion," UO junior Joseph Young said. "That's just going to be their motivation."
The seniors played a huge role in Oregon's turnaround from a 3-8 start to Pac-12 play. Several weeks ago, Altman challenged his seniors to finish their careers playing better basketball, and urged the underclassmen to follow their lead.
With fourth-year senior Johnathan Loyd providing a particularly important voice, the seniors have sparked the Ducks' winning streak, which finds them solidly in the NCAA Tournament field based on current projections.
"The seniors have always been sticking together and doing a pretty good job," Altman said. "We've won some games, so that makes it look better. But I was never displeased with them; I was disappointed we weren't getting it done together."
Saturday's game will be the latest in which the Ducks try to reverse a narrow defeat earlier this season. Oregon beat UCLA in double overtime last week and Arizona State on Tuesday after losing two-point games to the Bruins and Sun Devils earlier this year, and the Ducks also suffered a two-point loss at Arizona on Feb. 6.
Oregon led late in that game, but the Wildcats went up 62-60 on a late three-pointer by T.J. McConnell. Arizona ultimately won 67-65.
"These last few games we've played, we've executed in the last five minutes," Young said. "That's what we've got to do."
The Ducks got very minimal frontcourt production in that game, with Mike Moser, Ben Carter and Richard Amardi combining for 12 points in 62 minutes. Waverly Austin, who was the most valuable player of Tuesday's win over ASU due to his rebounding and defense, played just seven minutes against the Wildcats, with two fouls his only contribution to the final box score.
Moser has been Oregon's most consistent producer during the recent win streak, with three straight double-doubles. And another big performance by Austin could help neutralize Arizona post Kaleb Tarczewski.
"(Austin) had a fantastic game against Arizona State," Altman said. "Tarczewski with his size gives Wave a good matchup, so we're hoping Wave can give us something again."
Then, Austin will be one of seven seniors honored postgame, along with Loyd, Moser, Amardi, Jason Calliste and walk-ons Nicholas Lucenti and Brian Crow. (A junior in athletic eligibility, Crow plans to graduate and won't return to the team.)
"It's a big group of guys, and a good group of guys," Altman said. "They'll really be missed."
Lucenti joins Loyd as the two players on the roster throughout Altman's four-year tenure. He has made 22 career appearances, and is still looking for his first points of 2013-14.
"It's crazy to think I'm one of the only ones who played at Mac Court and Matthew Knight Arena," Lucenti said. "But I loved that place. It had crazy energy. … I knew I was just part of the team and had to give everything I had. I've loved every minutes of it."
The postgame ceremony for seniors will add to the pageantry of a game that has attracted a soldout crowd, and a national broadcast audience on CBS.
"You gotta be careful," Altman said. "Arizona is used to being in this situation; they've been in this situation all year. We've had our backs against the wall all year. This is one that's a little different for us, but our guys will be OK."