<
>

Oregon might be the Pac-12's strongest Final Four contender

play
Ducks down Utes for 41st straight home win (1:17)

Dillon Brooks drops 20 points as No. 7 Oregon defeats Utah 79-61 to improve to 23-4 on the season. (1:17)

Arizona got one step closer toward reclaiming the Pac-12 title -- it has won it in two of the past three seasons -- back from Oregon.

According to ESPN's College Basketball Power Index, the Wildcats entered the night with an 86.5 percent chance of winning at least a share of the regular-season title ahead of Oregon (43.5 percent) and UCLA (7.6 percent).

The Ducks have one more chance to extend the nation's longest home winning streak, which now stands at 41 games after their 79-61 win over Utah on Thursday night, but they finish the regular season with three straight road games at California, Stanford and Oregon State.

Oregon might not win back-to-back Pac-12 crowns for the first time ever. Big deal. The Ducks, not Arizona, are better suited to break the league's national championship drought.

It has been 20 years since Arizona last cut down the nets to bring the NCAA title back West. Only five Pac-12 teams have made the Final Four since then, the last being UCLA in 2008.

Here's why the Ducks could be the Pac-12 team that finally breaks through.

Oregon returned four starters from its Elite Eight loss last season to Oklahoma. And that's not including Jordan Bell, who didn't start but still logged 30 minutes that game.

By comparison, Arizona has just two players remaining from its 2015 Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin. Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic played limited roles in that contest. By limited, Ristic literally played less than a minute while Jackson-Cartwright logged four.

It will be virtually an all-new experience to the Wildcats.

Oregon could end up following Villanova's example. Nova was motivated by its past shortcomings in the tournament, which fueled last season's championship run.

The Ducks were admittedly a bit overwhelmed by the stage of last season's Elite Eight and played arguably their worst game of the season. Tyler Dorsey told ESPN.com during the preseason that the Ducks wanted a shot at redemption.

Oregon doesn't have to have big scoring from junior Dillon Brooks, but he has established himself as a big-time player. In the eight games he has been held to single-digit scoring, the Ducks are 6-2 (and the first loss was Brooks' first game of the season coming off a foot injury).

But when Brooks gets it going, he becomes a player who could turn into a household name when amplified by the NCAA tournament spotlight. Conceding the fact that he'll already be internet infamous for his monumental flop in the first meeting with Utah, he has plenty of other highlights to make up for that.

Just look at Thursday, when he crossed over into the lane and dunked on Tyler Rawson, Utah's 6-foot-10 forward. Brooks then buried a 3-pointer from deep on the next possession to finish with a team-leading 20 points.

He doesn't shy away from being under the microscope either. Remember his game-winning 3-pointer in Oregon's 89-87 win over UCLA? What most folks don't realize is that Brooks was 1-for-7 from behind the arc before his final shot.

Brooks has been on a tear of late, averaging 21.0 points in last five games following a nine-point output in a 74-65 loss at Colorado.

The Ducks also play lights-out defense.

Utah was second in the league in scoring, averaging 80.5 points per game. The Utes, who played without injured forward Kyle Kuzma, scored just 16 until the final three minutes of the first half.

Oregon leads the Pac-12 in defensive efficiency in conference games, according to Ken Pomeroy, as well as steal percentage and block percentage. Most of the blocks seem to come in half-court sets with Chris Boucher, who's tops in the league with 2.7 per game, setting the tone.

But one exchange against Utah summed up why the Ducks are so good defensively.

Midway through the second half armed with an 18-point lead, Bell could have easily conceded a layup to Utah's Lorenzo Bonam. After all, Bonam got a head start on a Dylan Ennis turnover at midcourt. But Bell caught up to Bonam to swipe his shot out of bounds. That kind of unwillingness to take a play off will make a difference in March.

That's why capturing another conference title doesn't matter. The Ducks have a bigger prize in mind.