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

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-usc-trojans-rebounding-pac12-defense-mobley-ballo-lloyd Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Fresh off a big revenge win over UCLA, the Arizona Wildcats are back at it when they host No. 19 USC on Saturday afternoon at McKale Center.

Seventh-ranked Arizona (18-2, 8-1 Pac-12) has not swept the Los Angeles schools at home since 2016, having lost two of the previous three meetings with the Trojans (19-3, 9-3) in Tucson. The Wildcats are 12-0 at home this season, winning every game by at least 10 points, while USC is 7-1 on the road including Thursday’s comeback victory at ASU.

Here’s what to watch for on Saturday:

‘Another better team’

This is Arizona’s first Thursday night/Saturday afternoon pairing of games this season, but not the first time it’s been back in action less than 48 hours after finishing the previous contest. The Wildcats beat Michigan to win the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas less than two days after outlasting Wichita State in overtime, and they followed up a blowout home win over Colorado last month with an 18-point win over Utah not long after.

Saturday’s 3 p.m. MT tip comes less than 43 hours after the UCLA game ended, so there’s not much time for physical recovery or between-game planning. That’s why coach Tommy Lloyd said he was already thinking about USC on Thursday morning, and why a good chunk of his postgame message after UCLA was focused on the Trojans.

“I’m proud of you, I love you, and and the reward you get is you get a really good USC team coming in here,” Lloyd said he told his players Thursday night. “And I’m serious. It’s a gift. It’s a gift to have another really good team coming in here on Saturday. That’s what it takes. And in order to be a great team in the NCAA tournament, you got to beat one good team on Thursday, you got to beat another better team on Saturday. And I’m not saying they’re better than UCLA, but they’re right at that level. So it’s an honor, and this will be a great experience for us.”

About the Trojans

USC brings back a fair amount of experience from a team that reached the Elite Eight in 2021, though there’s a notable absence in the form of No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley.

The Trojans do still have older brother Isaiah Mobley, a 6-foot-10 junior who is averaging career highs in scoring (14.7 points per game), rebounding (8.5) and assists (3.1) while also shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. He’s one of four starters averaging double figures including Boogie Ellis, a transfer guard from Memphis.

“They got some high-level guards who have experience,” Lloyd said. “They have high-level big guys that got experience. Just a really, really good team, that’s why their record is as good as it is.”

USC plays fast on offense, its average possession length second only to Arizona in the Pac-12, while on defense it forces opponents to take longer than anyone. The UA has gotten recent experience in having to be more patient on offense, with both ASU and UCLA trying to slow things down.

Battle on the boards

USC is the top offensive rebounding team in the Pac-12, grabbing more than 36 percent of its missed in league play. Arizona is second, at 35.6 percent, but had only eight for its third-lowest OR% of the season against UCLA.

The Trojans are also the best defensive rebounding team in the league, holding eight of 12 Pac-12 opponents below 25 percent on the offensive boards.

With USC likely to make this a halfcourt game as much as possible, Arizona’s shot selection and its ability to get second chances will be huge. The Trojans have the worst 3-point defense in the conference, preferring to pack the paint and leave open shooters on the perimeter, which could cause Arizona to settle for deep shots.

UCLA left Dalen Terry wide open most of the night outside, resulting in him making 2 of 4 3s, though most of the time he ended up passing up those open looks in going for 10 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, a line only he has had among UA players in the past 12 seasons and he’s done so twice in Pac-12 play.

Lloyd wants him to take more of those shots when they present themselves.

“Dalen’s worked on his shot,” Lloyd said. “I mean, it might not be a Reggie Miller or anything like that, but he’s worked on a shot. When he’s open for 3, he needs to shoot a couple of them a game. I believe in that kid.”

Spreading out those minutes

No one will ever consider a high ankle sprain to be a blessing in disguise, but Azuolas Tubelis’ injury did force Arizona to give Oumar Ballo more minutes regardless of the situation and the results have been tremendous.

Ballo is now the UA’s sixth-leading scorer, at 7.4 points per game, despite averaging just 14.5 minutes per game and being the only member of the 8-man rotation not to start.

“For a long time, I said we have seven starters,” Lloyd said. “I think Oumar is making a push for eight.”

Ballo has averaged 19.2 minutes over the past five games, including a season-high 24 against UCLA when he had four points, eight rebounds and four blocks and was on the court for most of the final 10 minutes while Tubelis was not.

“Sometimes you sub and you just get a feel for something and you need to kind of ride it out,” Lloyd said. “That lineup defensively is tough. I mean, they were getting to the rim and now you’re running into Oumar, or C-Lo’s coming from the backside. That’s tough, so you can kind of stay sticky in all your coverages. We’re playing that supersized lineup more and more, there’s a real advantage for us.”

Look for plenty of Ballo and Christian Koloko on the court together against USC, which is the third-tallest team in the country according to KenPom.com (Arizona is No. 2).

“I don’t know if we can say enough about C-Lo as a defender,” Lloyd said. “I mean, to put a 7-foot-1 guy on the perimeter, switching screens, guarding ISO, getting through ball screens is pretty rare and pretty unique. So he gets a ton of credit, and Oumar gets a ton of credit for developing into the player he has always had the potential to be. So now that there’s value in playing both of them together.”