Pair of streaking, lower-seeded teams meet for a spot in the Sweet 16
Seeds can be deceiving when it comes to Oregon and UC Irvine. Both teams entered the NCAA Tournament as double-digit seeds, but they are much stronger than those seeds. It sets up for what could be a memorable second-round clash on Sunday.
Oregon made an unexpected run through the Pac-12 Tournament, winning four games in four days, just to get into the field. The 12th-seeded Ducks haven't stopped flying high. They dominated No. 5 seed Wisconsin and pulled away for a 72-54 victory. Oregon stifled the Badgers on the perimeter to pull away after halftime.
UC Irvine took advantage of an offensively challenged No. 4 seed Kansas State in a 70-64 victory by raining down baskets from the perimeter. The 13th-seeded Anteaters also held the Wildcats to just 37.3 percent shooting from the field.
This is the ninth game all-time between the two schools. Oregon holds a 6-2 lead in the series. UC Irvine hasn't beaten the Ducks since sweeping a home-and-home series in 1981 and '82.
South Region: No. 13 UC Irvine Anteaters (31-5) vs. No. 12 Oregon Ducks (24-12)
Time: Approximately 9:40 pm ET (Sunday)
Where: SAP Center at San Jose (San Jose, Calif.)
Keys for UC Irvine
Shooting well from the perimeter is going to be critical for the Anteaters. Oregon has a ton of size, length, and quickness. Four of the five starters for the Ducks are 6-foot-9 or taller, so getting to the basket will be a chore for UC Irvine. Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard can open things up a bit if they shoot as well as they are capable of doing. Both players scored 19 points against Kansas State. Leonard is shooting 41.2 percent from 3-point range, while Hazzard is at 39.7 percent.
Cutting down on turnovers is crucial if the Anteaters want to advance. UC Irvine got sloppy at times against the Wildcats. That won't fly against the Ducks. Oregon loves to throw a relentless press at opponents and it can cause turnovers to pile up in a hurry. The Ducks thrive on transition baskets. If UC Irvine lets the transition game get going for Oregon, it will be battling a double-digit deficit for the better part of 40 minutes.
Keys for Oregon
The Ducks need to use their size to their advantage around the glass. UC Irvine has consistently won the rebounding battle with opponents all season long. Oregon can prevent that from happening on Sunday. The Ducks have outrebounded six of their last nine opponents through a collective effort on the glass. Louis King, with 5.6 rebounds per game, is the only healthy Oregon player averaging more than five rebounds.
Cranking up the defensive pressure is an Oregon trademark, especially during the team's current winning streak. UC Irvine showed it is vulnerable to turning the ball over in the team's win over Kansas State. The Ducks know how to fluster opposing guards with their quick hands. Oregon is averaging 5.4 steals per game over the last nine games and has forced 14.8 turnovers per game in that stretch. The Ducks have had eight steals in back-to-back games against Washington and Wisconsin.
Few teams left in the NCAA Tournament are on a bigger roll than these two squads. UC Irvine has won 17 straight games. Oregon has won nine in a row. Both teams are hungry to prove themselves and both are dangerous teams. The edge ultimately goes to the Ducks. Oregon has more quickness, depth, and athleticism than UC Irvine. Injuries were largely responsible for the Ducks' struggles earlier in the season. Now fully healthy, Oregon is playing how everyone expected when it started the season as a Top 25 team. That's ultimately bad news for the Anteaters.
Prediction: Oregon 67, UC Irvine 56
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.