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Arizona basketball: Three things we learned in Wildcats’ win over USC

This team’s been good on the road so far, but not necessarily for 40 minutes

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was interesting. The Arizona Wildcats just can’t seem to leave the Galen Center lately without some excitement. After leading by as many as 23 points Thursday night in Los Angeles, Arizona was able to make just enough plays at the end to hold on to a 73-66 win over USC, turning a snoozer into a nail-biter. Here are some things we learned.


ARIZONA IS TOUGH ON THE ROAD

The Wildcats improved to 4-0 in true road games. Given Arizona’s youth, this is somewhat surprising. Prior to Thursday night’s tilt in L.A., the Cats had a Division 1-best 21 point margin of victory on the road in fact (Missouri, currently 256th in RPI, is nothing to write home about I concede). But Cal, Stanford, and now USC represent quality true road wins in the league. Throw in Texas A&M in what amounted to a road game and that’s four RPI top 100 road wins.

I think any young team will naturally look comfortable at home but find growing pains on the road, playing in loud and often hostile arenas. Momentum swings can make or break close games, as we nearly saw against USC. But these young Wildcats kept their composure, and, yes, with some luck along the way (Lauri Markkanen’s banked 3 and the controversial intentional foul call on Dusan Ristic), held on and beat a good team in their place.

This is also important because the NCAA Tournament selection committee usually puts an emphasis on road and neutral games.


THE DEFENSE IS ROUNDING INTO FORM

Okay, okay, so maybe not in the last ten minutes or so of Thursday night’s game. Or the second half in general when USC was 6-for-11 from three, many of which were open looks. But hear me out. For the year, Arizona is 29th in field goal percentage defense (39.6%) and 12th against the three (29.4), best in the Pac-12 in the latter category and 3rd in the former. This is with three true freshmen playing 30 or more minutes per game.

For the game, Arizona held the Trojans to 37.3% shooting, 66 points -- 12 points below their scoring average -- including just 19 in the first half, and, prior to the second half defensive vacation, made things generally uncomfortable. Arizona entered the game 12th in Division 1 in scoring defense, allowing a little over 61 points per game. KenPom has the Cats 14th in defensive efficiency. The Cats top the conference in both.

As long as the effort is there, the defense can be stout thanks to length inside and active wings on the perimeter. This will be especially key with offensive juggernaut UCLA next on the docket (currently second in D1 with 93 points per game, 1st in adjusted offense, 10th in tempo per KenPom). That game will prove whether the D is merely rounding into form or has arrived (or even has regressed).

Arizona’s best recent teams were built on excellent defenses, such as 2014 and 2015 when the Cats were first and third in adjusted D, respectively. Saturday at Pauley Pavilion will tell us a lot, for better or worse.


SOMEONE PLEASE REMIND THE FELLAS THE GAME IS 40 MINUTES

This game should’ve been a blow out, with walk-ons getting mop up duty at the end. The Cats ballooned a 10 point halftime lead to 23 five minutes into the second half, and 22 with 11 minutes left. From that point, when Arizona led 56-34, USC outscored the Cats 32-17 — including a 17-4 run — and got as close as three with a minute left, to make it, as Dick Vitale would say, a “Maalox masher”.

A barrage of 3-pointers, led by Elijah Stewart (Five points in the first half and one made three, 15 points and four 3’s in the second) rained down and Arizona’s offense bogged down, going over six minutes without a field goal. It was the Texas A&M game all over again, when a 21 point lead with eight minutes left eventually dwindled to two before Arizona pulled out a four point win. USC scored 34 points in the game’s first 30 minutes and 32 in the final 10.

Sean Miller had strong words post game for the effort, or lack thereof, in the second half. He noted the runs that this team gives up and how fortunate Arizona is to sit at 17-2. Adjustments need to be made and fast, with a trip to UCLA Saturday and to Oregon two weeks later.

A win is a win, but it’s certainly not ideal to make a living off turning huge leads into narrow wins.

Follow me on Twitter @BHillAZDS