Fresh off completing the first road sweep in Pac-12 Conference play this season, No. 23 Arizona returns to Tucson on Thursday for a pivotal date with Southern California.
Both Arizona (15-6, 5-3 Pac-12) and USC (17-5, 6-3) are part of the five-team logjam atop the conference in the loss column. The Trojans dropped into that pack last week after splitting its home games, a comeback win over Utah and a lopsided loss to Colorado.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, rallied late to beat Washington on Jan. 30, then cruised to a 66-49 rout of Washington State on Saturday. The Pacific Northwest sweep marked the first 2-0 weekend road swing for any Pac-12 team this season.
“I never really felt when we lost a couple of close games that the bottom was falling out, and it’s so important for us not to get too carried away with what we just did,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said, per the Arizona Daily Star. “I think the one thing that we’ve done so far is we’ve tried to take a very balanced approach and keep working on those things that are going to help us win.”
A “balanced approach” includes Miller’s use of a rotation that goes nine-deep. While Arizona features a primary trio shouldering the scoring load of Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Josh Green, ninth- and 10th-leading scorers Max Hazzard and Ira Lee see significant minutes.
Lee has had an uptick in playing time off the bench in recent weeks with a back injury sidelining Chase Jeter. All told, Arizona’s depth contributes to a potent offense that ranks 17th in the nation and second in the league at 79.8 points per game.
USC counters with a defense that is allowing 65.4 points per game in conference play. Coach Andy Enfield’s use of a lengthy frontcourt — with combinations of 6-foot-9 Onyeka Okongwu, 6-10 Isaiah Mobley and 6-11 Nick Rakocevic sharing the floor at times — has produced the 18th-most blocked shots (118) in the country.
Okongwu is tied for seventh among Division I players, averaging 3.0 blocks per game.
But while USC has thrived defensively at times, the Trojans seek more consistent offense heading into the back half of Pac-12 play. Their last six contests include two games scoring in the 50s, two in the 70s and two in the 80s.
“We’ve done a lot both offensively and defensively to put ourselves in a good position but obviously this second half of the Pac-12 season we have to make some improvements,” Enfield said in his press conference following the Colorado loss.
Although it has yet to finish a Pac-12 road sweep, USC heads into Thursday’s matchup having had some success away from Galen Center on the season. The Trojans are 5-2 in road games, but face an Arizona team that is 10-1 at McKale Center, with its only loss coming in an 84-80 decision against Gonzaga on Dec. 14.
–Field Level Media