Second place in the Pac-12 Conference could be decided when No. 8 Arizona, looking to avoid back-to-back defeats, plays at Southern California on Thursday night in Los Angeles.
The Wildcats (24-5, 13-5 Pac-12) have never lost consecutive games under second-year coach Tommy Lloyd, but it won’t be easy to keep that streak alive.
The Trojans (21-8, 13-5) are tied in the league standings with Arizona, three games behind UCLA, which clinched the regular-season title with two games remaining.
USC has won four in a row, including a road sweep of Colorado and Utah last week, to boost its NCAA Tournament resume. The homestand against Arizona and fourth-place Arizona State can further improve the Trojans’ seeding.
“A lot of our players have matured and grown,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We’re a much better team than we were in November and early December.”
The Trojans have been growing around the veteran core of Boogie Ellis (17.2 points per game) and Drew Peterson (14.6 points, team-high 6.4 rebounds per game). Sophomore Kobe Johnson has been hot lately, with five double-digit scoring games in the past seven outings to raise his scoring average to 8.8 to complement his reputation as a lockdown defender.
Defense often has led the way for USC, which leads the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (38.9 percent).
That defense will be tested by Arizona, which leads the conference in scoring (83.3) and shooting percentage (49.2), but its defense went missing in Saturday’s 89-88 home loss to Arizona State. The Sun Devils shot 53.7 percent and made 11 of 28 3-pointers, including a buzzer-beating 60-footer to win the game.
“It’s tough to lose the last game at home,” said Lloyd, who is 57-9 at Arizona. “But it ain’t the end of the season. We’ve got two more games to play against two good teams, and we have the Pac-12 tournament. We’re going to get ready for March, and I think we’re going to be a whole new team now.”
Lloyd did, however, send a public message to star post player Azuolas Tubelis, who had three subpar games due to foul trouble before the Arizona State game. He managed 17 points and nine boards against the Sun Devils, but he wasn’t as impactful as usual and sat for some defensive possessions down the stretch.
“I don’t care about overall stats. I’m going to be honest, I never even looked at the overall stats,” Lloyd said after the game. “I couldn’t tell you what his shooting percentage is, how many points he’s scoring. But I know effort on defense, and he’s got to play better.”
Tubelis still leads the Pac-12 in scoring (19.6) and rebounding (9.1).
The junior scored 15 points and pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds as Arizona rolled to a drama-free 81-66 win over the Trojans in Tucson on Jan. 19. USC shot just 36.9 percent and trailed by as many as 21 points in the second half.
–Field Level Media