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What to watch for when Arizona hosts USC in key Pac-12 game

Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

After two weeks away from home, the No. 23 Arizona Wildcats will return to McKale Center to host the USC Trojans on Thursday.

Arizona (15-6, 5-3) is coming off a road sweep of the Washington schools. USC (17-5, 6-3) is coming off a home split against the Mountain schools.

Thursday’s tip-off is set for 7 p.m. MST on ESPN2. Here are some things to watch for.

Rebounding battle

The No. 1 key for Arizona in this game is controlling the defensive glass. That was a problem for the Wildcats earlier in the season but they have gotten things under control in Pac-12 play, ranking No. 1 in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.

Is it for real? We’ll see. USC and UCLA will put it to the test this weekend, as they enter as the No. 2 and No. 1 offensive rebounding teams in the conference, respectively.

You can read more about that and how Arizona has turned things around here.

Freshman phenoms

Four future first-round NBA draft picks could be taking the floor in McKale on Thursday. Three, obviously, are Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green, who are the only freshman trio in the country to lead their team in scoring.

The fourth is USC freshman Onyeka Okongwu. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 16.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per game on 60 percent shooting. Bleacher Report lists him as the No. 1 center in its draft rankings while CBS projects him as the No. 20 pick in draft.

Here is part of what BR’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote about Okongwu a while back:

At 6’9”, 245 pounds, Okongwu has unleashed a combination of strength and quickness that’s translating to high-percentage finishes and putbacks. His motor also creates opportunities at the rim,

Flashes of skill have given Okongwu an extra push up the rankings. He’s delivered numerous pretty post moves, showing ambidexterity and a slippery spin move. Though he uses his jump shot sparingly, his three makes and 6-of-7 performance on free throws highlight encouraging touch.

After he blocked eight shots during USC’s opener, it became obvious his defensive upside was also exciting. Okongwu’s length, aggressiveness and foot speed have led to rejections near the rim and away from it. He’s blocked shots guarding on the ball and off it while anchoring the paint in rim protection.

The Trojans also have 6-foot-11 freshman Isaiah Mobley, a McDonald’s All-American who was the No. 20 recruit in the 2019 class. He’s averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, backing up Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic, a skilled senior.

If the Trojans don’t have the best frontcourt in the Pac-12, they are definitely near the top.

Senior shooters

USC does not shoot the 3 particularly well (34.9%) or often (301st in 3-point rate), but it does have two solid shooters in seniors Jonah Mathews and Daniel Utomi.

Matthews is USC’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 PPG, and has hoisted 128 3-pointers, sinking 38 percent of them. Utomi has made 36 percent of his 76 3-point tries.

Hazzard at home

Speaking of senior shooters, the last time Arizona played at home, Max Hazzard was exactly what his name says he is—a max hazard for the defense.

The fifth-year senior averaged 16.5 points per game in the sweep of the Mountain schools, shooting a scorching 9 for 16 from 3.

He has only scored eight points over his last three games, and was even benched in second half at ASU for a number of poor plays, so it will be interesting to see if he can catch some fire in his return to McKale.

Baker and the turnover battle

The turnover battle could swing heavily in Arizona’s favor. The Wildcats are No. 2 in the Pac-12 in turnover percentage. The Trojans are 11th. Allowing Arizona to get in transition and liven its crowd would be a death sentence for USC.

The Trojans already struggle enough on offense and their defense, ranked 36th in the country, is effective when it is not allowing fastbreak points.

A big reason the Wildcats have been able to limit their turnovers is Jemarl Baker Jr. The sophomore and backup point guard has not committed a turnover in his last four games, going 102 consecutive minutes without coughing the ball up. He has 15 assists in that same stretch.

For the season, Baker has 54 assists to 11 turnovers, a sublime 4.9 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Another stat that falls into this subsection: Arizona has forced 302 turnovers this season, the most ever by a Sean Miller coached team through the first 21 games of a season.

A leg up in the Pac-12 title race

Arizona and USC are two of the five teams that lead the Pac-12 with three conference losses, so this game could have major implications when it comes to determining the Pac-12 regular-season champion and/or Pac-12 Tournament seeding.

The Trojans, which still get to host the Wildcats in a few weeks and don’t have to play Oregon again, would be in terrific shape with a victory. Arizona is currently the perceived favorite to take the conference but that would probably change with a loss, since they are expected to win this game.

Vegas oddsmakers list the Wildcats as a 10-point favorite while KenPom lists an 85 percent win probability, with a projected final score of 76-64.

Smith’s shoes

Arizona senior guard Dylan Smith wears a different pair of shoes every game, and his reasoning is pretty simple.

“We normally get a lot of free shoes, so why not wear them?” he said. “So I just try to switch them up, and I try to make sure I break all of them in. And it’s cool. It’s the thing to do. Times have changed.”

Arizona is a Nike school, so Smith usually wears the signature shoes of their sponsored athletes like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.

“Whenever [Brian Brigger], equipment manager of the year, gives us the shoes, I just try to like shoot with them soon as I get them, just break them in and just run around,” Smith said. “And if I like the way they feel, I just keep them in rotation.”

Smith said the KD 4s are his go-to because they are the most comfortable, not because of any superstitions. He doesn’t keep track of how he plays in certain shoes, though seeing how Arizona goes as he goes, maybe he should.

“I never thought about that,” Smith said. “That’s a good question.”