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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball visits USC

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-usc-trojans-pac12-title-rebounding-2022 Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona plays its final road game of the regular season on Tuesday night when it visits USC, but there’s so much more to this matchup than if it had been played in January as originally scheduled.

The second-ranked Wildcats (25-3, 15-2) would clinch the Pac-12 regular-season title with a victory, while the No. 16 Trojans (24-4, 14-4) can keep that race alive with a win. An Arizona win would also quickly erase memories of Saturday’s 16-point setback at Colorado, while also give it a 9-3 record on the road, which would tie for its most road wins since 2002-03.

Arizona could also pull off a regular-season sweep of the Trojans for the first time since 2017, while also solidifying its chances for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona and USC meet at the Galen Center:

Bouncing back

A good thing about having a record like Arizona’s is that there haven’t been many times where it has had to see how it responds to a loss. The previous two instances can provide a little bit of insight into how the Wildcats might look, but not much.

After losing 77-73 at Tennessee on Dec. 22, the team scattered for Christmas break and before returning had its next two games (at UCLA and USC) postponed because of those programs’ COVID issues. A makeup game against Washington was moved up to Jan. 3, and while Arizona won comfortably it turned the ball over a season-high 21 times.

The Wildcats’ first game after losing by 16 at UCLA was an offensively challenged 67-56 home win over ASU, which saw them score more points from the foul line than on field goals during the first half.

The turnaround between losing 79-63 at Colorado and playing arguably the hottest team in the Pac-12—USC has won six in a row since losing in Tucson on Feb. 5—is much shorter than for the previous two bounceback opportunities. Arizona did fly home from Boulder Saturday night, but rather than rest most of Sunday and Monday it had to prepare for a big matchup.

While Lloyd said last week that having all three of Arizona’s COVID-postponed games be on the road put his team at a competitive disadvantage, that’s about all you’ll hear him or his players complain about the situation.

“I tell our guys, ‘listen, pretty soon here in the Pac-12 Tournament, if you want to have a chance to win it, you got to play it three consecutive days,” Lloyd said after the Feb. 7 win at ASU, which was at the start of Arizona’s second of three 3-game road trips. “So you should be ready to play tomorrow. Luckily we don’t have to and you can rest a little bit. But the mentality needs to be recover like you’re gonna play tomorrow.”

Trending Trojans

USC’s 6-game win streak has given it 25 regular-season wins for the first time in program history, and that stretch also fortified the Trojans as a team that can play under pressure. Five of the six victories were by six or fewer points and three were one-possession games, including a 3-point double-overtime win at Oregon State on Thursday and Saturday’s 70-69 win at Oregon.

Arizona, on the other hand, has played only four games decided by four or fewer points, with the 84-81 home win over Oregon on Feb. 19 its only such tight outcome in Pac-12 play.

Looking back at the previous game against USC, Arizona held the Trojans to 34.3 percent shooting—its second-lowest rate of the season—and 23.3 percent on 3s. They have shot 41.5 percent from deep since then, with Drew Peterson leading the way in that category (and pretty much every other one).

Peterson, a 6-foot-8 guard who was 1 for 13 (0 for 6 from 3) against Arizona last time, is averaging 18.8 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting (53.8 percent from 3) since that game. He just earned his second Pac-12 Player of the Week honor in the last three weeks, beating out Kerr Kriisa and his triple-double at Utah.

Painting over that last game

Arizona gets more than 54 percent of its points on 2-point shots, and the vast majority of that scoring comes in the paint. Count the number of times they get to the foul line as a result of being hacked close to the basket, and the Wildcats are a dominant team down low.

Normally, at least. Colorado completely neutralized Arizona’s frontcourt presence, outscoring the UA 54-26 in the paint despite having no player over 6-foot-9. That was Arizona’s fewest paint points of the season, 16 fewer than it had against USC earlier this month.

USC is the top offensive rebounding team in the Pac-12 in league play, collecting 35.6 percent of its misses, while Arizona has dropped to sixth in the conference in defensive rebounding. The Colorado game was just the fourth time this season the Wildcats have been outrebounded.

Get back to passing (to the right team)

Arizona’s 11 assists against Colorado were its fewest of the season, while nine of its 16 turnovers were live-ball giveaways. UA opponents have 195 steals this season, 128 in Pac-12 play, and for the year the Wildcats’ foes have scored more than 21 percent of their points off turnovers.

The UA is 18-0 when recording 20 or more assists, and the 18 games at that tally are third most of any team in Division I in the past 12 seasons. Not surprisingly, Arizona has shot at least 47 percent in all but one game that it’s had 20+ dimes, while it has shot below 45 percent in five of the other nine games.