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What to watch for when Arizona visits USC on Thursday

arizona-usc-basketball-tv-channel-live-stream-odds-radio-pac12-preview-wildcats-trojans-espn Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats return to action Thursday when they visit the USC Trojans in Los Angeles to begin the penultimate week of Pac-12 play.

Arizona (19-8, 9-5) is coming off a heartbreaking home loss to Oregon. USC (19-9, 8-7) was swept on the road by the Mountain schools.

Tip-off in the Galen Center is set for 8 p.m. MT on ESPN. Here are some things to watch for.

Home sweet road?

Interestingly, the Arizona team that did not win its first road game until the last days of January now actually feels more comfortable away from McKale Center. The Wildcats have won four straight on the road while going just 2-2 in their last four at home.

The reason for that aside from their road games featuring lesser opponents?

“I think our team in some ways is very easily distracted (at home) because we’re dependent on a number of guys that have a lot at stake that are first-year players,” Sean Miller said.

And while Arizona is only 4-4 on the road for the season, two of those games—at Oregon and ASU—should have gone differently had they not completely melted down in the final moments of regulation.

“We’ve been consistent and my hope is that we can do the same thing this week,” Miller said. “I mean, historically, the L.A. trip is always difficult for every team.”

As our Brian Pedersen pointed out earlier in the week, the Wildcats are 6-10 at the LA schools under Miller, getting swept four times including last season. They have only been swept elsewhere five other times, three of those coming at Oregon.

Sick and tired

The Trojans are coming off a wicked week in which some key players suffered from injury and illness. Senior center Nick Rakocevic battled a stomach virus that limited him to five minutes in the loss at Utah on Sunday and caused him to lose 10 pounds.

Jonah Mathews played 23 minutes against Utah, but was dealing with the same stomach bug and had to leave the game to, um, relieve himself. Reserve big man Isaiah Mobley tweaked his ankle in the first half and hardly played in the second half.

USC’s defense suffered big time, allowing the Utes to shoot 63 percent in the second half and pull away for a 79-65 win.

“When you’re down a couple of your key guys, especially your size and length, it hurt us defensively and threw us out of our offensive rhythm a little bit,” USC coach Andy Enfield said afterward.

It is unclear how those aforementioned players are feeling heading into this week, but their status is obviously something to keep an eye on. Mathews (12.9 PPG) and Rakocevic (11.0) are USC’s second- and third-leading scorers, respectively.

The two best freshmen in the conference?

Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji and USC’s Onyeka Okongwu are probably the frontrunners for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award. Good luck picking between the two. Their stats are strikingly similar.

  • Nnaji: 30.2 MPG, 16.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 58.5 FG%, 78.1 FT%
  • Okongwu: 30.4 MPG, 16.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 62.2 FG%, 72.0 FT%

When they battled the first time, Nnaji had 18 points and 11 points on 6-of-13 shooting. Okongwu had 23 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks on 7-of-11 shooting.

Getting Nnaji an adequate amount of touches has been an issue for Arizona at times, one they are well aware of.

“Clearly being able to get him the ball in scoring position is a big, big deal. Really, really big deal,” Miller said. “Maybe the biggest deal that we have going on here in Arizona basketball in 19-20. And we’ll keep trying to get him the ball at the end of games and half, in the post, you know? If you have a suggestion or a way to get it to him, I’d be more than happy to listen because we want to get him the ball there’s no doubt about it. He is incredibly efficient.”

NCAA and Pac-12 Tournament implications

Arizona (9-5) pretty much has to win out to have a shot at the Pac-12 regular-season title, seeing that ASU (10-4) has the same schedule and Oregon (10-5) finishes the season with three home games against teams with losing conference records. Plus, UCLA and Colorado each have five Pac-12 losses as well.

USC (8-7) isn’t really in the conference title hunt at this point, but it needs as many wins as possible to stay on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently lists the Trojans as one of the last four teams in.

And, yes, Pac-12 Tournament seeding is still at stake for every team. Arizona has to finish strong just to earn a first-round bye.

“We have to understand that,” Miller said. “The competitive spirit, the readiness, you have to be laser sharp and not just once the jump ball goes up, but everything we do matters, the practices, the preparation, making sure the guys are locked in on the task at hand.”

Second-half slide

The first time the Wildcats played the Trojans, Arizona led by 20 with 12:55 left, but saw that lead get trimmed all the way to three after Mathews hit a 3-pointer with five seconds left.

Arizona did not make a field goal in the final 8:20, missing all six shots during that span, and missed six free throws in the final two minutes. On top of that, USC shot 54 percent in the second half, with Rakocevic and Okungwu totaling 41 points on 22 shots.

The Wildcats hung on to win anyway, but that game still highlighted the late-game woes that have plagued them all season.

“That lead diminished to three mostly because we took erratic shots,” Miller said. “We had kinda that ‘my turn’ thing going that we’ve had at times this year.”

Thus, Arizona has been stressing a 40-minute effort this week.

“The tides can turn at any point in the game so we just have to stay focused and just try to execute as best we can, defense and offense,” said Jemarl Baker Jr.

Same keys

As usual, Miller said the keys to victory are defensive rebounding and limiting turnovers.

“When those two things are favorable, that’s when we’re the toughest team to beat,” he said.

Arizona couldn’t have been more careful with the ball last time against USC, committing just six turnovers all game.

Arizona did an OK job controlling the glass, outrebounding the Trojans 34-30, though USC did turn nine offensive rebounds into 12 second-chance points and won the second-half rebounding battle 16-13.

The Trojans are the third-best offensive rebounding team in the conference.

California love

Including the injured Brandon Williams, the Wildcats have six players from Southern California, which means there should be a large contingent of Arizona fans at the Galen Center. (The UA has a strong presence in SoCal to begin with.)

Baker, who was born in Compton and later moved to nearby Carson and Menifee, said his whole family will be there.

“I have lot of family and it’s in the same neighborhood as where they live, so I’m very excited for them to be there and hopefully we can go out there and play hard and win some games,” he said.

Baker said he has never played in the Galen Center but did watch his sister play in a tournament there one time.

“It was great for me, knowing that I wanted to play Division I basketball at a big time school,” Baker said.

A secret weapon

Christian Koloko, who isn’t from California but did play high school ball there, has seen his role increase since the last time Arizona played USC.

That night he only played two minutes. And with the way USC’s frontcourt torched the Wildcats in the second half, the 7-foot shot blocker could prove to be a big difference maker in the rematch.

When healthy, the Trojans have arguably the best frontcourt in the conference, possessing a nice blend of size, skill and athleticism.

“When you think about blocked shots and deflections, steals, he’s off the charts per minute played and he’s done it against very good competition,” Miller said of Koloko. “Offensively, he knows who he is. Christian really doesn’t try to be anything other than a finisher. And he’s done a good job of getting some key second shots and catching the ball and finishing, but he’s he’s given us some really good depth off the bench in the front line. And I think the biggest part is it’s a different look.”