Oregon is riding high off its sweep of the Washington schools last week, but steeper tests approach, starting with the Los Angeles schools this weekend.
The Ducks travel south to play USC (17-9, 8-5) on Thursday and UCLA (17-8, 8-5) on Saturday. Both games carry heavy postseason implications for each team. UCLA and USC are currently tied for second in the Pac-12 and are bubble teams for at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament. Oregon is tied with Washington for fourth in the conference and is on the outside looking in in terms of making the Big Dance. But, the Ducks are coming off arguably their best weekend of conference play and appear to have some momentum as they make a push for a coveted at-large bid.
The Trojans are the first hurdle the Ducks need to clear. USC is losers of its last three games and suffered its worst loss of conference play — an 81-67 handling by No. 13 Arizona — its last time out. As of now, USC is one of the last four in, according to Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, so the Trojans have plenty to play for coming down the stretch.
The Trojans were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 in the coaches preseason poll, and for good reason. They returned the core of last year’s team that went 26-10 last season and upset six-seed SMU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They boast arguably one of the most talented lineups in the conference, highlighted by point guard Jordan McLaughlin (12.2 points and a conference-best 7.5 assists per game), forward Bennie Boatwright (14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game), and bonafide NBA-prospect Chimezie Metu (15.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game).
The last time these two faced, USC left Eugene with a tightly-contested, 75-70, win that the Trojans sealed down the stretch. The Trojans are also 10-3 at home this season, so a fierce contest surely awaits on Thursday.
UCLA is in almost an identical situation as USC entering this weekend series. But unlike USC, the Bruins have played well of late. They’ve won four of their last five, which includes a 16-point win over Stanford and an eight-point win over No. 13 Arizona in Tucson.
Star guard Aaron Holiday has played exceptionally well of late, averaging 20.4 points and 7.2 assists over the last five games. He’s currently fourth in the conference in points per game with 19.1 and second in assists at 5.5. Foul trouble limited him to only 14 points on 3-of-10 shooting in the Bruins’ last matchup with the Ducks, a game the Ducks won 94-91.
Both USC and UCLA are top-four in the conference for points scored per game, so the Ducks will need to continue playing the stellar defense they have of late. Oregon held both Washington State and Washington under 40 percent shooting.
With so few games left and so much at stake over these next few weeks, every game takes on more importance for all these teams. Sweeps are ideal, splits could be worse, and getting swept could mean the end of the line for some teams.
No one wants to miss out on the tourney, which should make for some intriguing games this weekend.
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris
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