Oregon is the nemesis Utah never wanted in men’s basketball — the Ducks have gone 23-2 against the Runnin’ Utes in Pac-12 play since Utah joined the league.
Utah has lost 11 straight to the Ducks and hasn’t beaten Oregon since Dec. 29, 2017, with its last home win against the Ducks coming on March 9, 2013.
Next year they’ll be in different conferences, with Utah headed to the Big 12 and Oregon to the Big Ten.
All that, plus a few other factors, sets up an interesting matchup between the Runnin’ Utes and the Ducks on Sunday at the Huntsman Center.
“They’ve been a premier program in this league, so I think it starts there. You know, (Oregon coach) Dana Altman does a great job. They always accumulate a ton of talent. I mean, they’re loaded with talent, and this year is no different,” said Utah head coach Craig Smith, who is 0-4 against Oregon as the Utes’ coach.
Sunday’s matchup (1 p.m. MST, ESPN) isn’t a must-win, but a victory would mean a lot for both programs in the Pac-12 race.
Utah (13-5, 4-3 Pac-12) could climb near the top of the league standings with a win. The Utes have yet to lose at home this season, going a perfect 10-0 at the Huntsman Center.
The Ducks (13-4, 5-1 Pac-12) are coming off their first conference loss at Colorado on Thursday, but a victory over Utah would keep them in the No. 1 spot ahead of a stretch in which they’ll play four of their next six games at home.
That could have a wounded Ducks squad hungry to get back on track.
“They’re physically imposing. They smashed us on the offensive boards last year,” Smith said. “We actually did a decent job of defending them but then they’d get good second or third opportunities.
“They just can hurt you in a lot of different ways, and they’re very physical, very athletic, and we have to match up to that.”
“They just can hurt you in a lot of different ways, and they’re very physical, very athletic, and we have to match up to that.” — Utah coach Craig Smith, on Oregon
Utah likely won’t be working with a full deck against the Ducks, though.
Starting point guard Rollie Worster has missed the past two games with a lower leg injury, while starting center Lawson Lovering was absent in Utah’s game Thursday after hurting his left foot early against Stanford last Sunday.
Smith said he doesn’t know how long term the injuries are.
“I would be surprised if they play on Sunday, to be quite frank,” the coach said after Utah’s 74-47 win over Oregon State on Thursday. “And then we’ll have to see, you know, next week where things are at.
“It’s just amazing, these guys are young, fit. One thing I’ve learned about really good athletes is they recover quicker than the average Joe, so we’ll see. It just depends. You just never know how these injuries go with recovery and it could be longer than we think, too. I just don’t know, and our mindset has to be prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Oregon has dealt with its share of injuries this season as well, though that’s done little to stop the Ducks from rolling early in Pac-12 action.
It’s made the Ducks more guard-reliant: Jackson Shelstad is averaging 14.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, while Jermaine Couisnard is adding 13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest.
While center Nate Bittle has played just three games, the Ducks recently got back all-conference center N’Faly Dante, who missed two months with a knee injury that required surgery, according to The Register-Guard.
He’s played in Oregon’s past two games and is ramping back up to full speed.
For Sunday’s game, it looks likely that Utah will insert Keba Keita and Deivon Smith into the starting lineup again alongside Branden Carlson, Gabe Madsen and Cole Bajema.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Utah (13-5, 4-3 Pac-12) vs. Oregon (13-4, 5-1 Pac-12)
Sunday, 1 p.m. MST
Radio: 700 AM
Keita shined in his first career start Thursday, putting up 18 points, a career-best 15 rebounds and three blocked shots as Utah dominated inside against an overmatched Oregon State squad.
Smith, meanwhile, has become a reliable playmaker for the Utes since becoming eligible to play in mid-December. Thursday was his second straight start, and the point guard had 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
“It’s one thing I’ve learned about Deivon, he’ll accept the challenge. He’s a competitive guy,” Craig Smith said about his guard.
“He has that ability to play at his speed, and I think that’s what the great ones do in any sport. They play at their speed, and he does that. … He plays with a lot of force but yet graceful and patient. He’s really impacting the game in so many ways but he’s still fitting into what we’re doing, what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.”