All they have to do is go through the No. 2 seed USC Trojans who are fresh off a 20-point semifinal blowout of Oregon.
These two were projected to be the top teams in the conference when the season started, are the two most talented teams and, despite a pair of roller coaster seasons, finished top two in the Pac-12. This is the matchup everyone expected back in November and now, here we are.
Arizona could be tired coming into tonight’s game after needing overtime to put away the UCLA Bruins on Friday night. The Wildcats held UCLA scoreless in OT and grabbed a 78-67 win behind 32 points and 14 rebounds from Deandre Ayton.
USC, on the other hand, will likely be well rested after being able to dispose of the Oregon Ducks with relative ease, winning 74-54. They’ll need all the energy they’ve got to defeat Arizona — a team that they came up short against in their only meeting.
The Wildcats beat USC, 81-67, back on Feb. 10 thanks to a superb Rawle Alkins performance and a plus-18 rebounding advantage.
If Arizona can get that kind of edge on the glass and a repeat of Ayton’s phenomenal effort less than 24 hours ago, the Wildcats should cut the nets for the second straight year. But it will not be easy against a USC team riding high. Here are three keys to a Wildcat win:
Efficiency or bust
USC’s defense has been the story of the tournament so far, holding their opponents to 48 and 54 points respectively. The Trojans have won six of seven since their loss in McKale Center and in their last five wins, they’ve held each opponent to less than 65 points.
The key has been forcing opponents into taking ill-advised shots. Oregon State shot just 31 percent against the Trojans on Thursday night and the Ducks didn’t fare much better last night. They shot 33 percent and ended up taking 30 3-pointers.
Arizona doesn’t mind playing slow and ugly and that will come in handy tonight. The Wildcats need to keep the ball moving and find good looks, especially down low and in the mid-range. USC’s defense has been super active and put a lot of pressure on opposing offenses. Arizona can’t allow that pressure to force them into taking a ton of 3s.
If the shots are falling, that’s another story. But if Arizona shoots 20+ 3-pointers tonight at less than a 40 percent clip, the Wildcats likely fall short.
Expose the lack of depth
Not only would attacking the basket pay huge dividends for Arizona’s offense, it will also result in Arizona taking a ton of free throws. Arizona is a great free throw shooting team but that’s not even the biggest benefit.
Getting USC into foul trouble could be huge. The Wildcats don’t exactly rely on their bench or go deep into it but they do have a depth edge on the Trojans. USC plays six or seven guys and if Arizona goes to the rim, they’ll force USC to use more of a rotation than they want.
If Arizona gets the Trojans’ starters off the floor for huge amounts of time and shoots plenty of freebies along the way, it’ll be tough for USC to keep up. It’ll be up to Allonzo Trier to lead the way with his aggression going to the basket.
The Wildcats’ defense has really improved over the last month but they still have a weakness and that is, and has been all season, the ability to stop opposing big men.
Chimezie Metu has the skill-set to hurt Arizona tonight — during this impressive run that USC is on, Metu is averaging 16.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks while shooting 59 percent from the floor again.
Metu needs to be the top target to attack at the offensive end. If Arizona can get him in foul trouble, they lose their rim protector and top inside scorer.
But if the foul trouble doesn’t happen, the onus will fall on Dusan Ristic and Deandre Ayton to contain Metu. The rebounding shouldn’t be a problem — Arizona outrebounded USC 40-22 last time — but if the Wildcats’ pair of 7-footers can keep Metu from being a scoring machine, Arizona will celebrate a second consecutive Pac-12 Championship.