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Greg Hansen: Big Game atmosphere doesn't slow down Wildcats, who got Ducks' best shot

Wildcats guard Kerr Kriisa, left, tries to get control of the ball as Oregon’s Rivaldo Soares defends Saturday night.

I long ago created a three-part formula to determine the difference between Big Games and All Other Games at McKale Center, and it has nothing to do with national rankings or Bill Walton sitting behind a microphone:

Check out Section 121, upper deck. Worst seats in the house, If it’s full 15 minutes before tipoff, it’s a Big Game. They were full 20 minutes before tip Saturday night,.

If the opposing team is booed upon its entrance to the court — ASU and Bobby Hurley don’t count — it’s not only a Big Game, it means that UA fans have a sense of fear. Indeed, UA fans experienced fear for the full 40 minutes of Saturday’s pulsating 84-81 victory over Oregon.

If Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, Arizona president Robert Robbins and UA athletic director Dave Heeke sit in the media room after the game, listening to Christian Koloko and Benn Mathurin answer questions, it’s a Big Game.

All of those variables were in place Saturday night. The atmosphere so fueled and aroused the Ducks — the nation’s most underperforming team of 2021-22 — that Oregon played like a Final Four contender.

“I told our guys that the only thing I’m upset about is that we don’t play this hard all the time,’’ Oregon coach Dana Altman said on his post-game radio show, “Our fans have got to be disappointed We played to the level of the competition, but just didn’t get it done.’’

Not everyone was impressed. By Sunday morning, analytics guru Ken Pomeroy had dropped Arizona from No. 2 to No. 3 in his “proprietary algorithm’’ formula. Kentucky jumped to No. 2, and it’s hard to dispute that.

Kentucky plays in the SEC, which includes six teams in Kenpom.com’s top 20: Kentucky, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas. By comparison, Oregon is ranked 73rd, which is a few slots below South Dakota State.

Kentucky lost at No, 12 Tennessee 76-63 last week, but that’s not considered a bad loss. Arizona lost a last-minute 77-73 squeaker at Tennessee in December, now viewed as one of Arizona’s shining moments of the season, coupled with victories over UCLA and Illinois.

It doesn’t really matter. Arizona will almost surely be a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament even if it loses a makeup game at USC next week and drops what seems sure to be a rematch with the Ducks in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.

Saturday’s victory over Oregon was the best evidence yet that 24-2 Arizona isn’t just free-wheeling, padding a fracturable résumé in an underwhelming conference.

The Ducks have every component necessary to be a Top 25 power: size, athleticism, length, rim protection, 3-point shooting prowess and experience. Oregon freshmen played a total of one minute Saturday. By comparison, Arizona is ranked No. 355 in the nation in “experience,’’ with an average of 0.52 years of college experience in the playing rotation; Oregon’s average is 2.37 years.

Yet the Ducks have all but imploded, losing badly to BYU 81-49; Houston, 78-49; Cal, 78-64; ASU, 81-57; and Saint Mary’s, 62-50. It’s so embarrassing that maybe Altman should give back some of those Pac-12 coach of the year awards for which he has been handsomely compensated.

And yet with 42 seconds remaining Saturday, the Ducks only trailed 79-78.

I watched Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd pace back and forth during one of the three stressful time-outs in those 42 seconds. It was tension times 10. In just his 26th game as a head coach, the weight of the moment didn’t get the best of Lloyd. Yes, his heartbeat accelerated, but more than that, he absorbed the opportunity.

“I don’t think I’m nervous in a bad way, but I’m excited,’’ he said.

“I’m anxious to see what happens. I love competing and I love games. And to be honest, I don’t mind the losing. It’s part of the deal. I don’t want to lose a lot, but it comes with the territory. Why should you shy away from it? But I know this: I enjoy winning, and I’m happy for the guys that they’re getting to enjoy winning.”

Arizona ultimately won because Koloko created what seemed to be an impenetrable path to the basket on the final possession. Ducks point guard Will Richardson was so intimidated he basically dribbled out the shot clock rather than launch a 3-point shot.

“I’m not sure why Will didn’t pull up and shoot,’’ said Altman. “It was either there or pop it to Quincy (Guerrier) for a quick 3. I don’t know, Will just made a mistake.”

The 7-foot Koloko’s ability to successfully guard a 6-foot 4-inch guard who has played 3,295 minutes of college basketball was the most important of the game’s 140 possessions. What can’t be measured is how much the McKale Center factor played into the game’s frantic finish.

Kenpom.com’s analytics ranks McKale as the 125th best home-court advantage. That’s proof not all sports analytics are legit. Maybe a year ago or in 2019, McKale slipped so far that it was 125th in home-court advantage.

But on Saturday, a night Oregon might’ve been as good as any team in the nation, including Gonzaga, McKale Center was at its best. And, in the clutch, so were Lloyd and the Wildcats.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711


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