The 12 seed University of Oregon Ducks (28-8, 12-6) will play the top overall seed Louisville Cardinals (31-5, 14-4) in the Sweet 16 Friday in what should be a hotly contested matchup.
After blowout victories in its first two tournament games, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said about the Ducks, “This basketball team to me is maybe the most underrated ever to play in the tournament.”
However, Louisville will prove to be quite the challenge Friday. The first thing that stands out about Louisville is their press defense, which is the most ferocious in the nation.
That press has led to the Cards’ 12-game win streak, including four wins against ranked opponents. Louisville won the Big East regular season title and the Big East Tournament title.
Louisville’s ferociousness on defense makes them elite in a couple different statistical categories. The Cardinals are 4th in the nation in scoring margin, outscoring their opponents by 16.3 points per game, and 2nd in the nation in turnover margin. Louisville forces more than 19 turnovers a game and are led by junior guard Russ Smith on the wing.
Smith, the 6’1 guard from Brooklyn, NY, leads the team in scoring with 18.4 points per game and also grabs more than two steals a game. Smith has scored 20 or more points in 17 games this season, including four of his last five games.
Smith teams with his backcourt mate Peyton Silva to make a deadly combo. Silva is second in the big east in steals with 2.28 per game.
Oregon head coach Dana Altman said Louisville’s speed and pressure from their press can’t really be simulated in practice because there’s nothing like the live experience.
[gn_quote style=”1″]“You can compare it to people trying to assimilate the football team’s speed, you know you just can’t do it,” Altman said. “You can’t put 15-20,000 of their fans in the stadium, you can’t add the pressure of a Sweet 16 game, and you can’t simulate their speed.”[/gn_quote]
Turnovers have been a huge problem for the Ducks all season, as they finished the season last in the Pac-12 in turnovers with 15.1 a game. Even in both two tournament games, where the Ducks beat Oklahoma State and Saint Louis by a combined 30 points, Oregon committed 18 turnovers.
Another thing Oregon must do to win is start the game strong early. Against UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament, the Ducks were down early 10-4 as they committed seven turnovers in the first 5:38 of the game. In their matchup against Oklahoma State, Oregon committed five turnovers in the first six minutes. And to continue the trend, Oregon gave the ball away four times in the first five minutes to Saint Louis and were down 7-4.
Oregon cannot continue this type of play against the Cardinals. The Cardinals are too talented and if the Ducks dig themselves in a hole early, they will not be able to get out of it.
A key matchup in the game will be in the backcourt between the veterans of Louisville and the youth of Oregon. Oregon’s two freshmen starters, Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, are integral to the Ducks’ success and the two play beyond their youth.
Dotson has been explosive offensively for the Ducks in the tourney. Oregon, as a team, has been on fire from the three point range in the tournament, shooting 48 percent in the thus far in large part due to Dotson.
Dotson set a career-high with 23 points against Saint Louis and has been shooting lights out from deep in the past few games. Dotson is 8-15 from three-point range in the tournament and 16-30 in his last five games.
Artis will have to play up to his potential for the Ducks to have a chance to win as well. Artis had a strong showing against Oklahoma State in the second round, but struggled mightily against Saint Louis to the tune of zero points on 0-7 shooting.
One aspect where Oregon holds a clear advantage is rebounding. The Ducks are 20th in the nation in rebounding margin, grabbing more than six more boards than their opponents per game. Arsalan Kazemi is indispensable for Oregon and will have to have another standout performance for the Ducks to stay in the game. Pitino highlighted the Ducks physicality as the thing that stood out to him.
[gn_quote style=”1″]“The speed and quickness of this Oregon team is different than any other team we’ve faced this season,” Pitino said.[/gn_quote]
Oregon has the ability to play with and beat Louisville, but they must play at their A game by keeping the turnovers down, starting the game strong early and continuing to hit three pointers. With those keys, Oregon will make its way to the Elite 8 and all of the glamour that goes along with it.
To win Oregon needs to keep down the turnovers, start the game strong early and keep making three pointers.