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What to watch for when Arizona hosts USC on Thursday

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NCAA Basketball: California Baptist at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats return to action on Thursday night when they take on the USC Trojans at McKale Center.

Arizona (9-1, 3-1 Pac-12) has won four in a row, the most recent an 86-82 double overtime victory at Washington State, while USC (6-2, 1-1) is coming off a home split against the Rocky Mountain schools.

Here’s what to keep an eye out on when the Wildcats and Trojans face off at 7 p.m. MST on ESPN2.

Rotation status quo

Arizona’s four bench players were responsible for 44 of the 86 points at Washington State, including 11 of the 16 scored after regulation. Freshman Bennedict Mathurin had a career-high 24 points, while Terrell Brown Jr. added 15 including the game-winning 3-pointer with 12.5 seconds left.

But don’t expect either of those guys to be on the court when the UA tips against USC. Coach Sean Miller all but confirmed he’ll stick with the same starting lineup he’s used the previous four games.

“We start a starting lineup for a reason,” Miller said. “We feel like that gives us the best chance to be the best team we can be at the beginning of each half. I think every player wants to start. For right now, I like the way our rotation is. The guys that don’t start the game are really important towards our success.”

Miller has often noted that who finishes games is more important than who starts, and that can be seen in Arizona’s minutes distribution. At 23.1 minutes per game, Terrell Brown ranks third on the team while Mathurin’s 20.8 are fifth-most.

The UA has stuck with its nine-player rotation from the outset, the only change being shifting Azuolas Tubelis into the starting lineup after Christian Koloko had that spot the first six games. Miller said if it becomes in his team’s best interest to make further changes he will, but for now he’s just happy he can still rely on as many players as he has.

“You’re never quite as deep when you get to conference play as you were in October, but on this year’s team it’s really remained intact,” he said. “Our best performances have come with a variety of combinations of players. Our depth really shined through against Washington State.”

Terrell getting his Seattle groove back

Terrell Brown led the Western Athletic Conference in scoring last season at 20.8 points per game, and he did so despite not taking very many 3-point shots. Instead, 210 of his 226 made baskets at Seattle were 2-pointers, and his 490 2-point attempts were 20 more than anyone else in the country.

While Brown isn’t taking nearly as many total shots as he did a year ago—he’s averaging 10.2 per 40 minutes, compared to 20.9 in 2019-20—he’s still showing his preference to shoot from within the perimeter, and his 47.5 percent overall shooting rate is way up from the 41.5 percent he had a year ago.

And not surprisingly, his scoring volume has risen since the schedule flipped to conference play.

In three games last week Brown averaged 12.3 points, with 40.7 percent of his field goal attempts this season coming in that span.

“I do think that he can score more,” Miller said. “He doesn’t have to get 20 a game for us, but taking those opportunities when they present themselves, we’re encouraging him to do that. I think the best is still yet to come for him.”

The Trojans’ horses

At an average of 76.9 inches, USC is the tallest team in Division I according to KenPom. Arizona, at an average 78.6 inches, is 11th.

“Their wings are big, their point guard is 6-foot-2,” Miller said. “Chavez Goodwin, the transfer from Wofford, he’s gotta be 6-foot-9. That length, it helps you be a rebounding team, it protects the basket, it’s tough to make shots over top of you. We’ve got to create our own good shots. They’re not gonna give you easy open looks.”

The biggest Trojan is 7-foot freshman Evan Mobley, who was the No. 3 player in the 2020 recruiting class and is projected by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman as the No. 4 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Mobley is averaging 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

“He has a unique ability to just being incredibly quick, almost like a wing player who’s a great athlete … but yet he’s 7 feet tall and very, very long,” Miller said of Mobley, whom he compared to Deandre Ayton. “Deandre, he was also one of those guys that was amazing with his agility. (Mobley) is always going by you, around you, over you. He’s a tremendous shot blocker. He goes and gets it, makes it look easy. He’s certainly one of the best players in college basketball.”

Pac-12 title race implications

With no NCAA or Pac-12 tournament runs possible, Arizona’s top goal is to win the regular season conference title for the first time since 2018.

A strong showing against two of the other top contenders for the regular-season title this weekend would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal.

UCLA, whom the UA hosts on Saturday night, was picked to win the league back in November and is tied for first with Oregon at 3-0. USC, though picked sixth, did earn a first-place vote and at 27th in the KenPom rankings is just ahead of Arizona.

The Wildcats are given a 58% chance of winning, with a projected final score of 71-69.

“They really are going to test us,” Miller said of the upcoming opponents. “We’re really going to have to be at our best to have a chance to win either game.”

Senior Ira Lee is the only scholarship player left from that 2018 squad, as well as the only Wildcat to have played in the NCAA tournament (albeit for only four minutes in the upset loss to Buffalo). He said Wednesday it “hurt” to learn of the self-imposed postseason ban, but that didn’t mean there was nothing left to play for.

“Like I told the guys, we might as well go out with a bang, so try to win every dang conference game,” Lee said. “We’ve got nothing to lose.”