Non-conference wins over strong teams from power conferences carry a lot of weight at the end of the season. That’s why the next two weeks are especially important for the No. 13 Oregon Fighting Ducks (love the “fighting” moniker), who went on the road and prevailed in a 115-105 shootout against Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Runnin’ Rebels tonight.
Oregon will treat its fans to two more marquee matchups before the students leave for Christmas break, as the Fighting Ducks host the Illinois Fighting Illini and BYU Cougars in Eugene on Dec. 14 and 21, respectively. If Oregon can make it to New Year’s Day unscathed at 12-0, it should be ranked near the top five heading into its Pac-12 Conference opener in Salt Lake City against the Utah Utes. If nothing else, Oregon’s hot start has given people in Eugene a reprieve from the football team’s relatively disappointing end to the regular season.
The soon-to-be No. 1 team in America resides in Tucson, and it seems like there are very few teams in the nation capable of beating the Arizona Wildcats. However, after them, the rest of the Pac-12 is up for grabs. The Colorado Buffaloes are 7-1 after they finally had some luck against a top-flight opponent in a 75-72 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks yesterday; the aforementioned Utes are also 7-1 albeit against a weak schedule; the Arizona State Sun Devils are unpredictable but talented at 8-2; and the No. 18 UCLA Bruins are 8-1, but showed signs of vulnerability in a loss to the Missouri Tigers.
Oregon is currently 8-0, and the team ranks third in the nation in scoring at 91.4 points per game while also placing in the top five in two-point field goal percentage. This team should be able to outscore almost any opponent it comes across, but the Fighting Ducks must shore up their rebounding (came into the game 157th in the nation in rebounds per game) and defense (allowing 74.8 points per game) to have staying power.
The first portion of Oregon’s conference schedule will pit the Ducks up against the three teams that it will play one time — at Utah, at Colorado, and home against the California Golden Bears — and after that the Ducks will enjoy a schedule that has two matchups apiece with expected bottom-dwellers Oregon State Beavers, Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars.
Oregon should be able to go 13-5 or 14-4 in conference, and assuming the Ducks make it through the non-conference schedule at 12-0 or 11-1, they should have at least 24 wins heading into the conference tournament. That would conceivably make Oregon the No. 2 team in the conference, meaning it would avoid Arizona until the conference championship game. The Ducks should have between 25-27 wins and 6-8 losses when the NCAA tournament rolls around, which should lead to at least a top four seed and a great path to success in March Madness.