Both teams have lost two straight.
Here are our predictions for Saturday’s game, and here are some storylines to watch:
It’s another great challenge for Arizona’s defense
USC’s makeup isn’t all that different from UCLA’s.
The Trojans have the No. 26 offense in the country, two spots below UCLA’s, and the No. 100 defense, 21 spots higher than the Bruins’.
USC also likes to play at a torrid pace and shoot the 3, and has the size and skill in its front court to match UA’s. So if the Bruins were able to shred Arizona’s defense, the Trojans can too.
Not to mention Arizona is arguably playing its worst at that end of the court right now. The Wildcats’ defensive efficiencies in the last two games were 116.7 and 118.0, which were the worst numbers they’ve put up since the Bahamas.
Simply, Arizona’s defense is trending in the wrong direction, and USC is more than capable of adding insult to injury.
Or, the Wildcats can come out with a spirited, bounce-back performance that instills optimism into a fanbase that is quickly losing it.
The loser will be in a dark place
Arizona has not been swept at home since the 2007-08 season when UCLA and USC trampled the Wildcats in McKale.
So, um, Arizona better hope history doesn’t repeat itself a decade later.
It’s not just that losing three straight games (and first place) would bad, but it would show that Arizona is not quite the “we can beat anybody at anytime” team that many believe they are.
The Wildcats are 9-3 in conference play because they were able to squeak by their weak Pac-12 opponents. But they are just 1-2 against UCLA, ASU, and Washington, who are NCAA Tournament-caliber teams (well, depending who you ask).
Lose to USC and it’s 1-3. Then Arizona would have to beat ASU on the road next Thursday to prevent that from becoming 1-4 — a game KenPom gives the Wildcats a 37 percent chance of winning.
And when you look at Arizona’s résumé in its entirety, it has just three wins against teams that are universally projected to make the NCAA Tournament — Alabama, Texas A&M, and ASU. All three of those schools are projected to be 9-seeds, by the way. Not exactly world-beaters.
Arizona’s porous defense is one reason any Final Four talk right now is premature, but so is its lack of quality wins.
Meanwhile, the Trojans don’t have luxury of debating Final Fours or even Sweet 16s. They have to worry about making the tournament first. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi pegs USC as one of the last four teams in, so its margin for error is razor-thin right now.
Lose Saturday, and not only will the Trojans be on a three-game losing streak, but likely on the outside looking in for an NCAA Tournament bid as well.
So basically no matter what happens Saturday, one of these two teams is going to be in dire straits once the final buzzer sounds.
Can Arizona get Rawle rolling?
Aside from poor defense, there is one recurring theme in Arizona’s conference losses this year: Rawle Alkins hasn’t played well.
In the three games Arizona has fallen short, Alkins is averaging 8.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 turnovers with a shooting line of .294/.200/.400.
He is averaging 14.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.5 turnovers in wins, shooting .511/.432/.776.
That is obviously significant difference and Alkins’ last two games were his worst yet, shooting 4-for-20 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3.
Head coach Sean Miller attributed that to Alkins’ inability to stay on the court since returning from foot surgery, whether that be games or practices.
Alkins missed three games in a four-game stretch at one point — and several practices on top of that. He didn’t do any on-court activity during the week Arizona hosted Colorado and Utah, Miller said.
“In fairness to Rawle, it’s really a hard situation,” Miller said. “He missed 11 weeks, it was a long time ago. We got him back, started to pick up momentum in practice every day, and then he felt some soreness. If I track the amount of time he’s missed or sat out, even this week, practice one day not practice the next, it’s just very hard to be successful. And I’m sure that’s a big part of his struggles. But I believe in Rawle.”
Whatever the reason, Arizona needs Alkins to get back on track Saturday.
Will Arizona get torched by another talented point guard?
Another game, another top-tier point guard Arizona has to try to slow down. This time it’s USC’s Jordan McLaughlin.
The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 12.1 points and 7.6 assists per game this season, with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than three to one. He shoots over 40 percent from distance, too.
And while McLaughlin isn’t quite the same scorer UCLA’s Aaron Holiday is, if Arizona let’s him get into the lane like Holiday did, he’ll do plenty of damage whether he’s the one scoring or not.
That said, McLaughlin has been in a bit of slump lately, failing to score in double figures in four straight games, shooting just 4-of-15 from 3 in that stretch. Even his turnover numbers are up, committing 17 the last four games (along with 31 assists).
But last year, McLaughlin averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 assists on 10-of-19 shooting in two games against the Wildcats, and Arizona’s defense was significantly better then, so he could have quite the night Saturday.
Which talented point guards haven’t, though?
Holiday had 17 points and 8 assists Thursday, while Alabama’s Collin Sexton and ASU’s Tra Holder each eclipsed the 30-point mark in McKale earlier this season.
FBI investigation has hit both schools hard, but USC more
Both Arizona and USC are implicated and affected by the recruiting bribery and corruption scandal that was unearthed by the FBI in September.
However, the Trojans have been hit much harder by it.
Both schools fired assistant coaches because of the ordeal — Book Richardson (Arizona) and Tony Bland (USC) — but the Trojans also lost one of their top returning players in De’Anthony Melton, who USC ruled ineligible after “federal prosecutors alleged David Elliott, a close family friend of Melton, received a $5,000 bribe in August in exchange for directing the player to use would-be agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood,” according to the LA Times.
Melton, a 6-foot-4 guard, averaged 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists as a freshman in 2016-17. He was projected to start for the Trojans, but instead never got a chance to suit up this season.
USC got off to a disappointing start (sound familiar?), losing a home game to Princeton in December to fall to 6-4. Melton’s absence undoubtedly loomed large — and not just on the court.
USC star center Chimezie Metu has worn a #FREEDMELT shirt during postgame interviews and even tweeted this, showing his frustration about the situation, and even some distrust in his own school:
"He didn't do anything wrong but let's suspend him bc we're selfish and have to protect our image" ...makes sense— Chimezie Metu™ (@Chimezie_Metu) January 11, 2018
Like Arizona, USC is struggling to recruit now, too. The Trojans lost five-star forward Taeshon Cherry just like the Wildcats lost five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly.
Both schools are now left with just two four-star recruits in 2018, and have little to no traction on the recruiting trail.
The futures of each program have been rocked, yet they have managed to stay above water in the present, both sitting atop the Pac-12 standings.
For now, anyway.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire