Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Arizona Wildcats' defense reverted back to its poor self and the USC Trojans torched Sean Miller's team in Los Angeles.
If you think you've seen this scene before, you'd be correct. A late February trip to the Los Angeles area two years ago saw a No. 10 Arizona Wildcats team that was 23-4 waltz into the Galen Center feeling good about themselves before getting smacked in the face, 65-57. Sean Miller's team went into Pauley Pavilion a few days later only to get blown out of the water by the Bruins.
The Wildcats can only hope that won't happen this weekend coming off another loss to the USC Trojans and looking just as vulnerable as they have, well, in pretty much every game this season. Bob Cantu's team improved to 8-7 in Pac-12 play with a 89-78 victory against a No. 11 Arizona team -- also coming in ranked 23-4 -- on Wednesday as Miller's team gave up an unfathomable 61 percent shooting.
The Trojans connected on a well-chosen 6-of-10 three-point attempts, and the Wildcats flung up 23 shots beyond the arc while only hitting seven, or 30.4 percent.
Whereas Miller's team had a Derrick Williams to guarantee that he wouldn't let a team manhandle the Wildcats like that two years ago at USC, it's a wonder who can do that for this version of Arizona. Solomon Hill led UA with 21 points, six rebounds and five steals, but he only hit 7-of-17 shots.
Limited as a scorer no matter his improvements, Hill's niche skillset doesn't fit the role he's trying to fill -- and that's not really his fault.
You'd take his aggression and his desire to create his own shots considering the following: Mark Lyons was held cold by the Trojans and hit 1-of-9 shots, though he did show an improved focus at attacking the rim. He still finished only a point below his average with 14 thanks to getting 12-of-16 foul shots to go down.
Kevin Parrom played off the attacking UA leaders well, scoring 16 points, but after that it was hard for the Wildcats to score. They shot 40 percent from the floor.
Nick Johnson was most notably absent, scoring four points. His regression has been the most curious aspect of Arizona, as it was arguably Johnson who was the most dynamic playmaker for the Wildcats by the end of the very successful nonconference schedule.
That's because Johnson's playmaking comes, very importantly, from the defensive end. Much because of the same reason Indiana's Victor Oladipo -- another atheltic perimeter defender -- is in the national player of the year consideration, Johnson was often the trigger to Arizona's defensive success. Intense ball pressure, steals and gravity-defining blocks not only swung games into Arizona's favor but fueled the Wildcats into a relentless, disruptive defensive matchup for opponents.
But allowing 61 percent to a team like USC -- a more talented one than their record may show but a squad that plays with a lot of one-on-one approaches -- is far from good defense.
USC outscored Arizona 16-9 on fastbreak opportunities, won by nine on the boards thanks to UA's bad shooting and sound defensive rebounding, and furthermore controlled the paint. And though the Trojans won on the perimeter, they also got the best of Arizona in the paint.
Undersized by smooth power forward Eric Wise beat the Wildcats up in the paint, often getting Lyons on his back via switches but always getting good looks. Wise finished with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Byron Wesley, J.T. Terrell and Jio Fontan all scored in double-figures and each hit two three-pointers as the Trojans spread the wealth and played with a smoothness that likely made Arizona fans wish for the herky-jerky offenses of the Kevin O'Neill days.
Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby, USC's two lanky big men, combined for eight blocks to neutralize drives from Hill and Lyons. And as usual, Lyons' three-point attempts (five of them) weren't because the ball was swinging.
The same issues that plagued the Wildcats in their first game against Charleston Southern remain, and they've been exposed by teams with size, teams with speed, teams that play zones and teams that don't. But the same issues weren't such in wins against the Miamis, San Diego States and Floridas, all of whom have lost to teams that are along USC's level.
But those games showcased the Wildcats' defense. They weren't pretty, but assertiveness on Arizona's part wasn't a complaint. It has been in a number of games of late.
A win against UCLA would be a sign that UA can flip the switch. But if the Wildcats don't use that switch with just two games left in the regular season, the cobwebs might be an issue heading into the postseason.