Oregon State’s first brush with the Arizona schools didn’t go so well, but they’ve got to pick themselves up before they take on the Arizona Wildcats on Sunday. We checked in with Scott Moran over at Arizona Desert Swarm to see what we can expect from Sunday’s game.
1. Arizona’s been on fire lately, with six straight wins before the loss against Oregon. After losing so many players since last season, not many people picked the Wildcats to be on top of the Pac-12, but here they are. What has fueled this streak?
It was always anticipated that this would be an odd year for Arizona. Still, they’ve been able to stay at the top of an admittedly dreadful Pac-12, and I think the key so far has been better discipline. In the non-conference schedule, the Wildcats were almost trying to play pure smallball, and while the Brandons are fine shooters, they’re no Steph and Klay. If one or both were cold from deep, Arizona had to try and find other ways to claw out advantages, and it didn’t always work. Now, the team is feeding big man Chase Jeter a lot more, and the guards have focused more on ball movement and cutting to the basket. Adding some easier twos to replace threes has given Arizona a steadier offense, and helped keep them in games. Even better, Arizona has vastly improved their previously abysmal free throw rates. They were getting single digit attempts from the stripe and missing a healthy amount of those in December, but now Arizona is shooting a lot of free throws and hitting damn near 90% of them in January. Those are two promising signs.
2. We just heard about Emmanuel Akot’s sudden departure from the program. It’s pretty clear that he wasn’t contributing as much as people had hoped, but how will his exit affect the team?
Akot was overshadowed a bit by last year’s star-studded lineup, and admittedly took his lesser role pretty well. This year, he’s been starting as a sort of hybrid guard/forward, but his output was still not great. It makes total sense for Akot to head out with two years of eligibility left, and both fans and the program universally wish him the best. Still, his transfer comes at a bit of a rough time. One of the common critiques against Sean Miller is he rides his starters a bit too hard and as a result loses depth. This year was already a bit thin in the frontcourt, and now Akot isn’t there anymore. That essentially leaves Jeter, Ryan Luther (who will take Akot’s starting role), and Ira Lee. Having three post players see court time isn’t a super good sign even for a team playing a form of smallball this year. Akot might not have been performing well in Tucson, but just having him on the roster was actually fairly important to the team, and we’ll see if the team can regroup.
3. One of the most exciting things for Beaver basketball this season has been the emergence of Kylor Kelley as a major defensive threat in the post. Who’s he going to be matched up against, and how do you expect that match up to go?
Kelley has been fun to watch from an outside perspective as well, and he’s probably what scares me the most about hosting the Beavers. He’s clearly talented and a good player, but really scares me is his 7’ height. Last year, Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic absolutely owned the inside, and Keanu Pinder was one of the better frontcourt players in the conference on the bench. This year, as mentioned above, frontcourt depth is an issue, even with a blossoming Chase Jeter down there. Jeter is probably a bit more naturally talented than Kelley, but he’s also 6’9”. This is a small team, and that’s part of the reason Arizona’s fouled a lot this year and was outrebounded 51-19 in a game. (Yes, really. It was bad). Against a 7’ talented player who’s getting better by the minute, that’s frankly terrifying. Jeter will be able to beat Kelley a few times with his athleticism, but I expect the team to swing back towards guard play against OSU with Kelley down there.
4. Arizona seems to have a good set of guards in Brandon Williams and Brandon Randolph. Do you think they’ll be able to handle the scoring threat the Thompson brothers pose?
Both Brandon’s have been a pleasure to watch this year. Brandon Randolph is probably the team co-MVP so far with Jeter, and gives them team their best pure shooter. Brandon Williams is almost a messiah to Arizona fans, since he recommitted in the wake of the ESPN report about Ayton receiving cash that hasn’t been backed up in almost a full year. The duo who share a first name will be fun to watch going up against the duo who share a last name for the Beavers. Both duos are more offense oriented, and both are probably the most fun players to watch on each team. This matchup just screams trading threes to me, and I think we could see a lot of threes going up with double digits on the shot clock with these four players. I’d put them at evenly matched, but I’ll give Arizona’s guards a slight advantage simply because they’re playing at home.
5. Finally, could you give us a prediction for the game’s final score?
The Oregon schools are perhaps even better than the Arizona schools in terms of overall strength across both teams. ASU and Oregon were expected to be the top of the conference this year, and here are UA and OSU facing off practically for the conference lead. Frankly, Oregon State scares me. Kelley is the exact kind of player who can dominate us down low, much like KZ Okpala did for Stanford. Arizona was able to pull out a win there because Stanford’s guards played awfully. I don’t trust the Beavers to make those same mistakes, especially with Tres Tinkle and the Thompsons on the court. I hope I can show my face in Tucson after this, but I really think Oregon State wins a 85-81 shootout. Another close win for the Beavers, and I really think this hot start is not a fluke for y’all.
Once again, thanks to Scott for helping us out. The Beavers take on the Wildcats this Saturday at 4:00 PM PST.