The Arizona Wildcats (15-6, 5-3 Pac-12) return home after a successful road sweep of the Washington schools to take on the USC Trojans (17-5, 6-3) in a battle of teams tangled at the top of the standings.
Tip off is set for 7 p.m. MT and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2. Head to our basketball section for complete coverage.
Below are our staff predictions:
Brian J. Pedersen — Arizona wins 71-65
As great as the road sweep was for Arizona, it will mean nothing if it fails to do the same at home this weekend. And for that to happen it’s going to require a tremendous effort on the boards. The Wildcats have gotten much better at rebounding, but USC is a step above them both in terms of offensive and defensive boards. That will mean making sure to take good shots on offense and force bad ones on the other end, though Arizona will pressure the ball in an effort to force turnovers since the Trojans struggle in that area. A loss here would be a major letdown, but with this team hitting its stride that shouldn’t happen against USC.
Matthew Rein — Arizona wins 75-68
Arizona played well enough to get a road sweep in Washington, and now much come home to sweep the LA schools in order to keep the momentum rolling. USC will be the tougher of the two contests this week, boasting a strong front court with impressive rebounding numbers, the Trojans are a legitimate NCAA tournament team. They are led by seniors Nick Rakocevic and Jonah Mathews, but the real threat to the Cats will be freshman Onyeka Okongwu. Okongwu is averaging nearly 17 points and 9 boards per contest, and Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji will have to be on his A-game.
This game really comes down to which version of each team decides to show up. Is it the USC that has gotten blown out by UW and Colorado, or the squad that beat LSU and Stanford? For Arizona, will it be the team that completed the Pac-12’s first road sweep, or the team that has blown some big leads? Arizona MUST rebound the basketball and take care of the ball.
ESPN’s BPI gives Arizona a near 90 percent chance to win, and while stats don’t lie, I’m not quite sure I would be that confident. I’m betting this game will be very competitive, with Arizona pulling away in the last four minutes of the contest.
Ronnie Stoffle — Arizona wins 74-69
USC will be an interesting test for this Arizona team. We know this far into the season that the Wildcats’ strength is their back court. Their front court has struggled with inconsistencies with the exception of Zeke Nnaji, of course.
The Trojans have three bigs who will create a lot of matchup issues for Arizona on Thursday night. Freshmen Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley have been a big reason for USC’s 17-5 start. Okongwu leads the team in points scored (16.7) and rebounds (9.1) per game. Mobley is contributing more as a role player but is still productive with 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Don’t forget about senior Nick Rakocevic. His production is slightly down compared to last season but the very obvious answer is the presence of Okongwu.
I trust Arizona’s guards will be able to hang with and even outperform the rotation of Jonah Mathews, Elijah Weaver, Daniel Utomi and Ethan Anderson. It’s not a given but I like the odds of this game being played in Tucson.
I won’t be shocked if the Wildcats fall to this USC team. However, I think Stone Gettings is finding himself nicely in the starting role and veteran role players like Dylan Smith and Ira Lee usually play better at home. I’ll take the Wildcats in a close one.
Ryan Kelapire — Arizona wins 77-68
This game will show if Arizona’s new and improved rebounding is for real. The Wildcats have been the No. 1 defensive rebounding team in the conference in Pac-12 play. USC is No. 2 in offensive rebounding percentage, with three guys—Rakocevic, Okongwu, and Mobley—a threat in that department.
They are also really good around the basket, so defending the paint will be critical too. It will be interesting to see if Chase Jeter gets some run for that very reason, though it’s tough to take Ira Lee or Stone Gettings off the court with the way they have been playing lately.
The thing that should scare the Trojans is their tendency to get turnover-happy. They rank 263rd in the country in turnover percentage, and if they are sloppy with the ball Thursday, the Wildcats will have a field day in transition. Not to mention Arizona has been very good at limiting turnovers and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which USC loses in that category but still escapes McKale with a win.
Adam Green — Arizona wins 77-64
How do the Wildcats handle prosperity? The USC game represents a chance for the team to show what it did in Washington was no fluke, that there has been legitimate growth and the Cats are ready to make some serious noise.
In many respects, things could not be set up any better with the next two games being at home and against lesser opponents. Win both, and Arizona will be on a nice little win streak. Lose either and, well, yeah.
So, USC...the Trojans have a good record but are not a particularly good team. They can really rebound the ball, which is perfect since Arizona’s turnaround (real or perceived) is based largely on an improvement on the glass. If the Cats have indeed turned a corner, this should not be a problem.
I don’t think it will be.
The battles down low should be fun, but I’m expecting to see Arizona’s guards step up and carry the team in this one.
Christian Mortensen — Arizona wins 67-60
Arizona has never lost to USC at home under Sean Miller, and I’m expecting that trend to continue Thursday night.
Yes, SC is very good on the boards and have some guys that will test Arizona’s front court — both in rebounding and on defense — but the Trojans come into this game struggling somewhat offensively.
The Trojans averaged just 56.5 points (on 35.3% shooting) in their split against Utah and Colorado last week.
Those numbers will have to be MUCH better if Andy Enfield’s team has any chance of leaving McKale with the program’s first win in the building since 2008.