Already this season, Arizona's toughest games -- a schedule that, while not a murderer's row, has been tougher than you might think -- have been as follows:
At home versus Colorado, when Sabatino Chen hit the banked-in-and-later-called-off game-winning 3 heard 'round the world. Arizona later won in overtime.
At Clemson in November, when the young Wildcats struggled to pull away (they eventually did, winning by 12).
And at home versus Florida, when Arizona raced to the finish to get a one-point victory in a game the Gators had largely controlled.
These are difficult games. Arizona has been obviously lucky to win at least one of them -- hello, Colorado -- and deserving of praise for securing the others.
And I don't think any of them will be as tough as what's in store Thursday night.
Why? Well, for one, as far as we can tell, the Ducks are pretty good. Potentially really good. Oregon currently ranks No. 26 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings primarily thanks to their defense, which is holding opponents to just .83 points per possession thus far this season.
Some of that figure has to do with competition -- besides UNLV and Cincinnati a road game at UTEP (a triple-OT loss, no less), Oregon's schedule has been pretty weak. But even with that factored in, the Ducks present a force that is almost entirely antithetical to the image of their most famous current program, Chip Kelly's football team. Kelly's style thrives on speed and finesse and skill, which feels appropriate for a team with a gazillion Nike-drafted uniform combinations. Dana Altman's group, on the other hand, plays a bit like Frank Martin's teams at Kansas State. They don't shoot the ball well, and they turn it over too much on offense, but they defend like crazy, they protect the rim, and what they lack in offensive touch they make up for with one of the best offensive rebounding rates in the country. Whereas last year's Ducks were formless and blasé, this year's group, for better or worse, has an identity.
Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi is the linchpin in this transformation. Kazemi, the first Iranian-born Division I college basketball player in American hoops history, flew under the radar for three seasons at Rice despite being one of the nation's best rebounders and defenders. This season -- after becoming eligible via a hardship transfer waiver -- Kazemi has only improved. He grabs 31.4 percent of his team's available defensive rebounds, the highest mark in the country, and 12.4 on the offensive end. His 6.2 steals per 100 possessions ranks him fifth among all Division I basketball players.
Oregon has gotten improvements and new contributions from a handful of guys -- freshman Dominic Artis is still inefficient on offense but can really defend, and freshman wingman Damyean Dotson has had a really nice season thus far. But Kazemi, an unmovable force on the low block, who is also nimble enough to force steals on the perimeter, is the change that put this defense over the top.
That's what makes this game so tough for Arizona, but it's not like the Wildcats don't have the talent to get the job done. In fact, Sean Miller has one of the nation's most enviable blends of cross-class talent: Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom are his senior cornerstones. Nick Johnson is his smooth-scoring sophomore. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett -- all forwards 6-foot-8 or taller, and all excellent rebounders -- are his highly touted freshmen.
The ways in which Arizona has won its most important games of the season have caused some to suspect the Wildcats of being overrated. After all, when games come down to one or two points scored on final possessions, doesn't the outcome have at least something to do with luck? Well, sure. That was especially true of Colorado, obviously -- the Buffaloes should have won that game -- but the Florida and San Diego State wins can not be boiled down to "they just wanted it more" as easily as some fans would have you believe.
But going too far in that counterintuitive direction would be a mistake, too. Arizona may have won a few games by the skin of its teeth, but that doesn't invalidate what this team has already accomplished on a per-possession basis. They may not be the fourth-best team in the country right now, but they are talented enough to get there sooner rather than later, and more than talented enough to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
That's why Thursday night's trip to Eugene is so very crucial. The Ducks are by far the best team Arizona has played on the road to date. They are strong and physical and don't need to score all that well to keep the game close. They will have a great crowd on their side, a crowd ready to come at the No. 4 team in the country -- the old, easy-to-hate elite program that used to dominate the Pac-12 with such ruthless efficiency.
It's a real test, but the answer is about more than a win or a loss. It's how the Wilcdats respond to the challenge in the first place. That will tell us more than which way the ball rolls in the final seconds -- for better and for worse.