A week ago, the Arizona Wildcats (19-6, 9-3) had won 16 of 17 games and appeared to be cruising to a regular season Pac-12 title.
Now they’re scrambling to get back on track and are in danger of losing a third straight game for the second time this season as they welcome the USC Trojans (17-8, 8-4) to McKale Center on Saturday night.
This is a big one. The top spot in the conference is on the line, both teams have lost their last two and the Wildcats are coming off their first home loss of the season which happened to be their worst performance since late November.
Can the Wildcats rebound following Thursday night’s miserable loss to UCLA? What will it take to get back to winning ways?
Let’s take a look at three keys to Arizona winning Saturday night’s showdown.
Win the turnover battle
The Trojans were doing a great job of taking care of the ball and ripping it away from their opponent in Pac-12 play. They won or tied in the turnover department for their first 11 conference games.
That came crashing to an end on Thursday night as USC was a mess, turning the ball over 18 times to the Sun Devils’ six. ASU ended up winning 80-78.
While it’s unlikely that USC will give the ball away that many times in McKale, they could be ripe for the picking after a sloppy, fumbling performance in Tempe.
Arizona has been guilty of going on streaks of sloppiness all season long. They had a rough first half against UCLA the other night. Arizona simply can’t afford that against USC though the Trojans will be trying to create chaos for the Wildcats as they have done against most of their opponents. If Arizona turns the ball over, they have to fight fire with fire and play aggressive defense.
Make your 3s
Easier said than done, sure. But with USC’s defense, Arizona will have the looks, they just need to knock them down.
The Trojans allow opponents to shoot slightly above 35 percent from deep and that’s coming off of a ton of attempts. Whether it’s slow defensive rotations or flat out daring the opponent to shoot, the Trojans let the opposing team take close to 24 3-pointers per game.
Arizona will need sweet shooting from Allonzo Trier, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Rawle Alkins and Dylan Smith. If Brandon Randolph can add anything from the bench, that could be huge for the Wildcats.
While it’s obvious that the defense needs to show up against USC, that feels like a lost cause at this point. The Trojans’ double-digit scorers — Chimezie Metu, Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart and Bennie Boatwright — will all likely get theirs no matter how the defense looks.
So the Wildcats could very well be better off focusing on outscoring their opponent. The looks will be there and it wasn’t long ago that Arizona had a two-game stretch where they hit 20-of-33 attempts from long range. If their shooting is closer to those numbers, it’ll likely be a successful night for the Wildcats.
But over the last two games, both losses, Arizona has shot 10-of-34 from beyond the arc. That won’t cut it against USC.
Get to the line
One of the significant advantages to having an uber-athletic team is having the ability to force your way to the rim and at least come away with free throws. The Wildcats do this but not nearly enough.
Arizona tied a season-low during Thursday night’s loss, attempting only 10 free throws.
It’s been one of the extreme downsides of seeing so many zone defenses and electing to hang back and take bad 3-pointers instead of driving to the hoop through the gaps in the zone. When Arizona attacks the rim, they become increasingly difficult to beat.
Arizona has shot 20 or more free throws in 11 games this season. Their record is 10-1 in those games — the only loss came to NC State, a game where the Wildcats took 35 freebies but also happened to shoot 2-of-17 from deep.
If Trier, Alkins, Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic can create contact around the rim and end up with a myriad of free throw attempts, the losing streak should stop at two.