USC Basketball Game Preview: Arizona Wildcats

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#10 Arizona Wildcats (23-4, 12-2) at USC Trojans (15-12, 7-7)

Head Coach: Sean Miller (Year 2: 39-19)

Conference: Pac-10

Stars: F Derrick Williams, F Solomon Hill

Location: Los Angeles, CA (Galen Center)

Time: 7:30 PM (PDT)

TV: Fox College Sports

Radio: 710 AM

Matchup: USC returns home from their first road sweep of the Bay Area schools in 19 years. They will host the Arizona schools, and the Wildcats are the toughest opponent to come to Galen since then-No. 20 Texas visited in early December. Kevin O’Neill shook up the lineup upon arriving in northern California by starting Donte Smith in favor of Maurice Jones, and the move energized the club. USC shot well throughout the weekend and their defense held up their end of the bargain. Before the sweep, USC had lost 6 of their last 9, and tonight’s contest will show whether the Trojans have hit their stride as March looms, or if the impressive display was just an anomaly.

Arizona arrives in Los Angeles as the king of the Pac-10. With Washington falling apart, the Wildcats have taken advantage and consistently beat teams to take a 2 game lead over UCLA with 4 games to play. On the season, Arizona is 0-3 against ranked opponents, but they are riding an 8 game winning streak and have soared up to number 10 in the polls.

Tuesday, USC head coach Kevin O’Neill made a very interesting remark regarding Arizona star Derrick Williams to Michael Lev of the OC Register. “He’s the most protected dude I’ve seen since Michael Jordan.” said  O’Neill. ” If the guy walks across the court, it’s a foul.” Whether the officials see this quote and don’t call the game as tight is a mystery, but I like O’Neill putting the idea out there.

Against the Wildcats, USC needs to continue the attack they utilized in the Bay Area. Jio Fontan didn’t shoot well, but he slashed to the basket which opened up gaping holes in the zone and allowed shooters to spot up beyond the arc. Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson also played very physically and established dominance in the paint. Their ability to score helped USC tally good point totals and shoot a high percentage. Maurice Jones presence off the bench was key as well. As a freshman, he was leading the Pac-10 in minutes played, and his shooting benefitted from not having tired legs. Jones nearly single-handedly willed USC to the victory at Cal by scoring 22 points in the second half. If USC can spread out Arizona’s defense, they will get better shots and that will translate to a big night, especially at home.

Defensively, the game plan will center around Pac-10 Player of the Year frontrunner Derrick Williams. The 6’8″ power forward plays well inside, but he is also a threat to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. The sophomore, who spurned USC for Arizona when Tim Floyd resigned, averages 19.7 points per game, shoots 63.5% from the floor, and has hit 27 of 40 threes. Kevin O’Neill has admitted that USC doesn’t really have anyone to put the clamps down on Williams. Shutdown defender Marcus Simmons is two inches shorter and would be giving 21 pounds. Furthermore, Simmons usually defends guards and it would present a unique challenge. Nobody else averages double figures, but Arizona ranks 16th in the nation with 78.4 points per game. The last time these two teams met, Arizona shot 61.2%, which was the best anyone had fared against the Trojans since 2004. If USC hopes to win this game, they must play the type of defense they did against Stanford and Cal and transition that staunch defense into a potent offense.

With each win, USC can improve their seed in the Pac-10 tournament and must avoid finishing lower than 6th to avoid a nearly impossible scenario of having to win four games in four days.