After cruising past New Mexico State, No. 4 seed Saint Louis University figures to face more of a challenge Saturday evening when it takes on No. 12 seed Oregon in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Billikens, who claimed just the second conference tournament title in school history last Sunday, have a chance to become the first SLU team to reach the Sweet 16—a feat that has not been lost on the players.
“I think it would be the biggest accomplishment we could make,” junior forward Dwayne Evans said. “That Saint Louis teams haven’t really been there before, and basing off where we’ve come from, especially our freshman year, being Coach Majerus’ only sub .500 team, it would just be a great accolade. And really just proving you can really change things around in a matter of years.”
Viewed by many as one of the more drastically under-seeded teams in the field, the Ducks, who finished third in the Pac-12 with wins at UNLV and at UCLA, carried the momentum of a conference tournament title run into Thursday, powering past No. 5 seed Oklahoma State 68-55.
Big 12 Player of the Year freshman point guard Marcus Smart was held to just 14 points on 5 of 13 shooting with five turnovers. As he struggled, his Oregon counterparts, freshmen Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, combined for 30 points on 10 of 21 shooting. Artis also provided a spark defensively with a team-high four steals.
Similar to SLU, Oregon prides itself on playing team defense. The young, athletic squad aggressively pressures teams inside the half court, looking to generate points by converting forced turnovers (15 tpg) and blocked shots (4 bpg) into easy buckets in transition.
“Both of us are very aggressive defensively,” SLU interim coach Jim Crews explained. “They have a little bit more full court stuff at times than we do. We don’t normally pick up full court or rarely pick up full court… So they have a little bit more variety defensively. Both aggressive, very team-oriented defensive team, as well as on the ball and off the ball defense.”
On the other end of the floor, Oregon is at its best when it is able to set up shop under the basket and get to the free throw line. Led by 6-7 senior forward Arsalan Kzemi (9.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 58.4 FG%), the Ducks look to pound the ball inside where they pick up 57 percent of their points (2-point shots). That ability to consistently work the ball inside has coincided with a free throw rate of 39.6 and a respectable 70.9 free throw percentage.
While the Ducks average over 71 points per game on 44.5 percent shooting, they struggle to knock down shots from behind the arc and have a tendency to turn the ball over. Artis (34.8 3PT%), a 6-1 guard out of San Francisco, along with E.J. Singler (35.8 3PT%) are the primary threats from behind the arc.
The team’s turnover woes may be attributed to the squad’s youth, at least according to coach Dana Altman, who has relied heavily on a core of freshmen to deliver for him this season.
It should be noted that Artis, who picks up most of his points on three-point field goals, went down with a foot injury in late January. At the time, he had started all 19 games and was averaging over 20 points per game. However, since his return on Feb. 28, he has been essentially a non-factor, mustering just 20 points over his last five games before Thursday’s 13-point outburst. The injury has limited his playing time as well, with his minutes per game on a steady downward trend (he played just 17 minutes against OKST).
“From an offensive standpoint…they like to really get the ball up the floor very, very fast on maids and misses,” Crews said. “So they’re really pushing it down your throat… Their tempo is a little faster than ours. We’re not slow, not even close to being a slow tempo, but we don’t run off made shots as much as they do.”
While Oregon will be looking to push the tempo and force SLU to run, the Billikens, while more than capable of playing at a faster pace, will be looking to stuff the Ducks into the half-court, a facet of their game that has been lacking this season.
“I wouldn’t say we really want to slow it down,” Evans explained. “We like to get out and run, as well. Our major focus will be stopping them from running. If that goes as planned, we’ll be running and they won’t. I think it will be a pretty effective game for us.”
Evans, who has scored 24 or more points in three of his last four games, has proven to be a matchup nightmare for opponents this season and Oregon is no exception.
“If you go small on him, he just takes you inside and posts up. If you go big on him, he can take you outside,” Altman said. “He shoots it well enough to draw you out there and he can put it on the deck…?I think we’ve got to change things up on him, put different guys on him, try to keep him off his base a little bit. A lot of people have tried that and it hasn’t worked very well.”
Saint Louis University will tip off against Oregon Saturday evening at 6:10. The game will be televised on TBS.