TUCSON, Ariz. --Only two games stand between Arizona and its first Pacific 10 Conference title since the 2004-05 season. If the Wildcats can squeak past USC tonight and UCLA on Saturday, they'll claim the title that's been absent from Arizona basketball for over a half-decade.
Any other young team that just cracked the nation's top 10 may overlook a USC team that's won three of its last four games. But head coach Sean Miller has his squad focused, making sure they don't stray from the preparation that's carried them to a 23-4 record.
"Nobody's more excited about playing than we are because we're fortunate to have a lot at stake. We're probably more focused than any team," MIller said. "Whether we're 25th, 30th or 10th, we're still playing for the same thing. It could be taken from us very quickly."
The Wildcats defeated the Trojans in McKale Center, 82-73, on Jan. 29, but USC is fresh off back-to-back wins over Stanford and Cal. Miller said USC is "playing very well" and that the Wildcats are catching the Trojans at a "tough time," because of their ramped up play.
Arizona also has its hands full in the paint, one game after being exposed down low against Washington, as Huskies big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning went off for 24 points and 13 rebounds on 12-of-19 shooting.
It doesn't get any easier against the USC with 6-foot-10 bigs Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson patrolling the paint. Vucevic ranks third in the Pac-10 in scoring (17.1 points) and leads the way on the glass, hauling in 10.1 boards per contest.
MIller, Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry all gave Vucevic, who scored 18 points in their first meeting, rave reviews.
"I don't think (Nikola) Vucevic gets nearly enough credit like a lot of players we play against don't," Miller said. "He's a great player. He does it so many ways. Great hands."
Added Williams: "Vucevic is a great player. He's more of a face-up. He can play the five or the four actually. He can shoot the ball, he can dribble."
And Perry: "He's pretty skilled for his size. He can shoot, post up real well, use both hands, the jump hook is real hard to defend. By far that's one of the big guys that I'd say is pretty tough to guard."
If the Wildcats hope to keep the Trojans distant, they need to limit Vucevic and Stepheson, who averages 9.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
Boo birds likely for trio of former USC-commits
Williams, Momo Jones and Solomon Hill all originally committed to play for the Trojans, before leaving to join up with Miller in Arizona. Williams said he heard his fair share of boos last year, but with the team's success and his accolades, he expects this season to be even worse.
"Last year it was basically just when they called my name in the starting lineup, I got some boos, me and Solomon and Momo," Williams said. "Other than that it wasn't really too big, but I kind of expect it to be a little more this year."
Williams, who hails from La Mirada, Calif., will have a fair amount of cheers to equalize the boos, as he's expecting "100 to 200" friends and "15" family members at both the USC and UCLA games.
"Hopefully I can play my best games," he said.
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