Pac-12 Tournament: No. 11 Washington State eyeing first conference tournament win in a decade against No. 6 Oregon
LAS VEGAS – When all the seeding chaos finally settled late Saturday night, and Pac-12 Tournament sorted out who’d playing who in Wednesday’s first-round games at T-Mobile Arena, the conference spit out a familiar matchup for the teams positioned in sixth and 11th place.
It was like déjà vu. Rather, déjà Vegas.
Precisely 371 days after Oregon and Washington State collided in the 2018 Pac-12 Tournament – seeded sixth and 11th, respectively – the Ducks (19-12, 10-8) and the Cougars (11-20, 4-14) will meet again in the Sin City nightcap, each playing to keep their season alive at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (Pac-12 Networks).
So, neither Oregon or WSU will be able to say they lack scouting material on the other leading up to another high-stakes game on the Las Vegas Strip. There’s been plenty of time for the Ducks to acclimate to the Cougars, and vice versa, as the Northwest rivals get ready to face each other for the sixth time in two years.
“Both of us have got to know each other extremely well, that’s for sure,” said WSU coach Ernie Kent.
Kent, of course, has a pretty good grasp on the Ducks as the one who led the early days of their basketball renaissance. While current Oregon coach Dana Altman guided the Ducks to their highest point – a 2017 Final Four berth – and many milestones before that, Kent built them back into a winner two decades prior, leading the Eugene program to five NCAA tournaments and two Elite Eights in his 13 years at the UO helm.
But beating the program Kent had a hand in constructing has been another problem, something that was driven home again six days ago, when Oregon cruised by WSU in Pullman 72-61 to complete a season sweep. The Cougars are just 2-7 against the Ducks since the coach took over in 2014-15 and haven’t won a game at the Pac-12/10 Tournament in a decade, since Tony Bennett’s 2008-09 WSU team took down an Oregon team coached by none other than Kent.
Quizzed about the pros and cons of playing the same team so often – and twice in the same week – Kent said, “It’s good because our prep is already in and everything else and we can just clean up. The other side of it is we lost to them at their place and lost to them at home.”
On the other hand, each of the four teams that have played the Ducks in the last 13 days have walked out with a loss – including the Pac-12’s No. 1 seed, Washington, which bowed to Oregon 55-47 in Seattle on Saturday.
Kent attributes Oregon’s recent surge to a shift in the Ducks’ starting lineup. Altman recently added freshman Francis Okoro to the fold, quadrupling the number of athletic 6-9 forwards the Ducks have in their starting five.
The Cougars will likely counter with a starting lineup of 6-9 Robert Franks, 6-9 Jeff Pollard, 6-6 CJ Elleby, 6-5 Marvin Cannon and 5-11 Ahmed Ali.
“That has helped them defensively where they can just kind of switch all over the floor and guard you, so it forces you to play smarter offensively,” Kent said. “They can do such a better job defensively because of that length on the floor.”
Turnovers have been crippling for the Cougars amid a five-game losing streak. And more than that, the manner in which their opponents have been able to capitalize on those turnovers. Over the last five games, WSU’s committed 80 turnovers, which have led to 111 opponent points.
Oregon turned 17 WSU turnovers into 20 points when the teams meet a week ago in Beasley Coliseum. And it was the same story when the teams played in Eugene earlier this season – the Cougars turning it over 17 times, the Ducks capitalizing with 21 points.
In the first meeting, WSU led 39-35 at halftime before being outscored 43-19 in the second half.
“I think it’s a good matchup,” said Franks, the Pac-12’s leading scorer and recent all-league first team selection. “We played them really well in Eugene and we fought back in Pullman, so it’s a team that’s very beatable. We’ve just got to come with the right mindset and game plan.”