The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats have won 10 games in a row, but their lengthy winning streak will face its biggest obstacle yet this weekend.
“L.A. is a difficult trip. It always has been for Arizona,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said Monday at his weekly press conference. “And the reason is that the two teams that are in L.A. are both very good. Not just one team, but two.”
Miller and the Wildcats can attest to that first-hand. Arizona is 2-4 at both USC and UCLA since Miller became the program’s head coach in 2009.
“We haven’t had any more success at USC than we’ve had at Pauley Pavilion,” Miller said. “And if you add both of them up during my time at Arizona, this has been the most difficult trip for us.”
And it won’t be any easier than usual this time around.
“Both teams are good, and maybe UCLA has been historically better but right now, especially the last two years, USC is a tournament team so we look at both games as being important,” Miller said.
The Wildcats, who aren’t expected to make a starting lineup change, are coming off a week-long break since their win over ASU.
“We have an opportunity to really be healthy and locked in, and then on Thursday night against USC we have to be at our best,” Miller said.
USC enters Thursday’s game with a 16-3 record and a 3-3 Pac-12 record, good for sixth place in the conference standings.
The Trojans went 13-0 in non-conference play, though that was in part to having the 114th-ranked non-conference schedule in the country.
USC recently dropped out of the Top 25, and is the 57th-best team in the college basketball, according to KenPom.
Still, the Trojans earned a split against the Rocky Mountain schools, including a comeback road win over the Colorado Buffaloes.
“They have a very talented group,” Miller said of the Trojans. “(Head coach) Andy Enfield continues to do a great job. When you get ready to play them, they have depth and right now they’re playing without one of their best players in Bennie Boatwright. I’m not sure if Bennie will play against us, but either way they’re very good.”
While the Trojans may be without Boatwright — the forward hasn’t played since Nov. 30 because of a knee sprain — USC has three other players that average double figures in the scoring column in Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin, and Elijah Stewart.
“They’re a poised team,” Miller said. “They have some players now that have been in the NCAA Tournament, that are in their third year, and they’ve had some big roles in their first two years.”
Miller watched the replay of USC’s win over Colorado on Monday morning, and Metu in particular caught his eye.
The 6-foot-11 big man finished with 24 points on 11-14 shooting, with 20 of them coming in the second half, helping USC overcome an early 10-point deficit.
“Chimezie Metu, in particular, took over,” Miller said. “Him having 20 points in one half, that’s all you have to say. …They weathered Colorado’s lead in the first half because of him.”
For the season, Metu is averaging a team-high 14.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
Second on the Trojans in scoring is McLaughlin. The junior point guard averages 13.9 points and 4.8 assists per contest and shoots 37 percent from 3.
“I love Jordan McLaughlin’s game,” Miller said. “As a point guard, he probably has as much meaning to his team as anyone we’ve faced. He makes great decisions, he can score. When he’s going well, it just seems like their team is going well.”
Meanwhile, Stewart — a 6-foot-5 guard — averages 13 points per game and, like McLaughlin, is shooting 37 percent from 3-point land. Last season, Stewart scored 27 points in USC’s quadruple overtime win over Arizona in Los Angeles.
“He’s in his third year as well,” Miller said of Stewart. “He hurt us badly last year, especially at ‘SC. We know he’s very talented and they have one of the best freshman in the conference in (De’Anthony) Melton. I think talent-wise, they have a number of them and they’re doing a good job of coaching their team. You add Bennie Boatwright to the group that they have, they’re even better.”
USC shoots 45 percent from the field as a team and 36 percent from 3, ranking as the 49th-best offense in college basketball, according to KenPom.
The Trojans play at one of the fastest paces in the Pac-12, and their defense is 99th in the country in terms of efficiency, per KenPom.
“College players know when other college players are good,” Miller said. “They know who is on USC’s roster and our players respect them a ton and they should.”
Possible distractions for homecoming Wildcats?
Two of Arizona’s eight rotation players hail from the greater Los Angeles area — point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and reserve big man Chance Comanche.
So, for them, the upcoming road trip gives them a chance to reunite with friends and family.
“No matter what city we go in, if their family is in the city, they’re always allowed to have some time there as long as they’re back in time for curfew,” Miller said of his approach in this situation. “And we’ve never had a problem.”
The problem is not with the players being back for curfew, it’s that sometimes they try to do too much on the court when in their hometown.
“It depends on the player,” Miller said. “In the East, this is the same as going to New York City. When you go to New York City, if you have a couple guys from New York City, it’s big. Madison Square Garden’s there. That’s where they’re from. A lot of people…are excited about them returning and sometimes they can get off the map.
“And really, their intent isn’t bad. It’s just they want to play so well that it works against them. And you hear all the time you want to have that quiet confidence, that relaxed concentration where the game feels the same, it’s not too big. That’s going to be a part of our success.”
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks
How they match up
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