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What to watch for when Arizona visits USC on Saturday

Arizona v USC Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats get a chance to play spoiler in the Pac-12 title race when they visit the first-place USC Trojans on Saturday afternoon.

Arizona (14-8, 8-8 Pac-12) has lost two in a row and five of seven, most recently falling 74-60 at UCLA on Thursday night, while USC (18-3, 12-2) has won seven straight and 13 of 14 that includes an 87-73 victory over the Wildcats in Tucson on Jan. 7.

Here’s what to look for when the UA tips off against USC at the Galen Center at 4 p.m. MST in a game that will air on Fox:

Another chance to bounce back

Arizona has dropped the first half of a weekend Pac-12 series four times this season. The first three times that happened it had a better performance on Saturday than on Thursday, though two of those still resulted in losses.

For that to happen once again will require the Wildcats to regroup against the best team in the Pac-12, one that’s trying to win its first regular-season conference title since 1985. Meanwhile, Arizona knows when its season is going to end and has nothing left to play for but pride, which could make staying motivated an issue.

“Well, that is the challenge,” UA coach Sean Miller said Thursday. “Is it a challenge for me or our staff? Absolutely. A year ago, around this time, we were still playing for the Pac-12 championship, and we clearly were a tournament team.”

This USC team is really good

When USC rolled past Arizona in Tucson last month it shot 75 percent in the second half and 58.5 percent for the game. Since then the Trojans have only topped 50 percent three more times, but that includes their last two outings, while six of their last 12 opponents have failed to shoot 40 percent.

USC has the Pac-12’s top offensive and defensive efficiency, per, and with Arizona’s recent rebounding issues the Trojans have moved into first in offensive rebound percentage in the conference.

The only things the Trojans don’t do well are force turnovers, which is music to Arizona’s ears since it had 16 at UCLA and has dropped to sixth in the league in offensive turnover percentage.

Freshman center Evan Mobley, who had 19 against Arizona last month, is shooting 60 percent from the field and is running away from the field in the Pac-12 Player of the Year race.

Arizona has opened as an 8-point underdog, which would be the largest spread it’s faced since the Wildcats were 9-point dogs against Auburn at the 2018 Maui Invitational (and lost by 16). The last time they were this big of an underdog in a Pac-12 game was Feb. 2, 2012, when as 8-point dogs at Cal they won 78-74.

Getting back to balance

James Akinjo and Azuolas Tubelis combined for 39 points on 14-of-26 shooting at UCLA, while the other seven Wildcats who played scored 21 points on 7-of-24 shooting. Terrell Brown Jr. was the only other player to make more than one field goal.

It’s hard to win when only one or two guys are scoring, but that’s happened quite a bit lately for Arizona, particularly in losses.

Tubelis (20) and Kerr Kriisa (12) were the only players in double figures in the loss to Oregon, and at Utah Tubelis (17) and Akinjo (10) were the lone guys to reach 10 points.

Bennedict Mathurin had been that consistent third scorer for a while, but since his ankle injury against ASU on Jan. 25 he’s been all over the place offensively. He was 0 for 3 for 2 points against UCLA after going 2 for 10 for 6 against Oregon, turning it over six times in the past two contests.

Last (road) hurrah

Unless the Pac-12 opts to reschedule the trip to Oregon—and Miller seemed to think that was unlikely earlier this week—Arizona is done with its road slate after this one. The Wildcats are currently 4-4 away from McKale Center, but after starting 4-1 they’ve dropped three straight on the road.

Arizona hasn’t won at the Galen Center since 2017, where USC is 11-1 this season.

This will also be the last time Ira Lee plays in his hometown, assuming the senior doesn’t return in 2021-22 with the extra year of eligibility granted because of the pandemic.

Lee, who was scoreless in five minutes at UCLA after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury, is averaging 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds in eight career games played in the LA area (including last year’s Wooden Legacy tournament). He had 11 points and seven rebounds in the 2019 loss at USC, and three of his seven career starts have come close to home.