clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

USC men’s basketball expert previews the Arizona game, makes a prediction

arizona-wildcats-usc-trojans-preview-drew-peterson-andy-enfield-boogie-ellis-Iwuchukwu-2023-pac12 Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona has dropped two of its last three games and has struggled for all or part of its last five contests. Not what you want when two of the better teams in the Pac-12 are coming into town.

First up for the Wildcats (15-3, 4-3 Pac-12) is USC, which is 13-5 overall and 5-2 in conference play. The Trojans are coming off a home sweep of the mountain schools last weekend and are 2-2 on the road in the Pac-12 so far.

To better understand this year’s USC team, we reached out to Matt Zemek of for some insight. These are his definitive answers to our deplorable questions:

AZ Desert Swarm: USC was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 by the media, and at this point is in third place. Has this season gone as expected for the Trojans?

Matt Zemek: “When you factor in the reality that USC has been without Vince Iwuchukwu until now (and even then, he isn’t going to play extended minutes—15 or more per game—anytime soon), USC has done reasonably well with the personnel it has. Let’s be honest: Losing Isaiah Mobley and not getting a significant new transfer portal piece meant that Iwuchukwu had to be a core part of this roster for USC to be an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. If we imagined a scenario in which he was healthy from the start of the season, and was able to get acclimated to the speed and physicality of college basketball by late November, the standards and expectations for this team would have been much higher. But, he wasn’t healthy. Accordingly, it’s hard to say this team has underachieved. It really hasn’t.

“If Iwuchukwu had played from the start of the season and had delivered the defense and rebounding Andy Enfield was hoping for, USC probably would have won a few of the games it lost, at least one of the two Battle 4 Atlantis games against Wisconsin and Tennessee. Maybe the UCLA game goes the other way, too. Without him, however, USC just wasn’t going to have that dynamic defensive big man who could score on putbacks of all the bricks this team shoots from 3-point range. Without an elite big, Enfield’s structure and plan can’t be fully realized. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

“If Enfield has failed at all this season, it was that he didn’t go out and get a shooter—a quality shooter who can play reasonably good defense—in the transfer portal. That was always the piece USC needed. Remember Tahj Eaddy? He is the overlooked player from the 2021 Elite Eight team. Evan Mobley gets the credit, but Eaddy played in Evan’s shadow, and without Eaddy, USC doesn’t sniff the Elite Eight two years ago. USC needs a big-time shooter. Oziyah Sellers is a good pure shooter, but he is a raw recruit who obviously isn’t ready at the defensive end of the floor. Enfield needed a veteran shooter with capable defense in the portal, and he just didn’t get the job done. That could have compensated for Iwuchukwu’s absence.”

How has the emergence of Boogie Ellis as the team’s primary scorer changed how USC’s offense operates, and what has that meant for Swiss Army knife Drew Peterson?

“Ellis has definitely been a better, steadier player than he was a year ago. He was a lot more hit-or-miss last season. He still isn’t what I’d call an elite 3-point shooter, but he certainly shoots threes better than his teammates. His floor game has been very good this season. USC really can’t complain about Ellis’s production and performance.

“Ellis hasn’t changed USC’s offense; not having Iwuchukwu is what forced Enfield to go to a more guard-heavy offense and a smaller lineup. Drew Peterson doesn’t have to handle the ball quite as much in this season’s offense, which takes a little pressure off him and ensures that he can remain energized and attentive at the defensive end of the floor. Peterson still doesn’t shoot 3-pointers well. That really limits what USC is capable of on offense. It remains true that when USC shoots fewer threes and can get to the rim, it has more success. This is not a good 3-point shooting team, as was the case last season; getting to the rim and the foul line are so important for the Trojans.”

Iwuchukwu, a 7-foot-1 freshman, made his debut last weekend only six months removed from suffering a cardiac event in a summer workout. What does his addition to the rotation meant for the Trojans?

“Iwuchukwu played five minutes against Colorado, six against Utah. He is, as you could well imagine, on a minutes restriction given the concerns surrounding his health. He will not play extended minutes in the near future, including this road trip to Tucson and Tempe. Maybe he’ll be allowed to play eight or nine minutes per game, but nothing more than that.

“He won’t be asked to score when he is on the floor—at least not as long as he is limited to eight or nine minutes (at most) per game. Can he provide defensive energy and rebounding when he is in the game? That’s what he can realistically be expected to do. You know that Arizona’s bigs are the strength of the Wildcats. If Iwuchukwu can hold the fort against Tubelis and Ballo, he will have done something valuable for USC.”

USC is tops in the Pac-12 in field goal defense, at 36.9 percent, and 11th overall nationally. What’s the key to the scheme, and are there any flaws that can be exposed?

“You know that Arizona’s guards haven’t been very good of late. That’s the key to this game in the McKale Center. Can Kerr Kriisa and the other Arizona guards hit 3-pointers? USC has length. Andy Enfield recruits length, he gets his defenses to clog passing lanes and make it hard to play over the top in terms of post feeds and attacking the basket. USC will give up the 3-point shot. Washington State made 14 in its win over USC on January 1. The Cougars made 15 3-pointers when they lost to USC 11 months ago in February of 2022. Arizona 3-point shooting and Arizona free throw attempts are the two stats I would look at the most as being indicators of who wins in Tucson.”

Andy Enfield lost to his former team to open his 10th season at USC, but this could be his third consecutive NCAA tournament team and seventh in the past eight years with at least 20 wins. Is the fanbase happy with him?

“USC is squarely on the bubble. We’re grateful to Arizona for beating Arizona State. The Sun Devils would be an NCAA Tournament lock if they had beaten the U of A, but the Wildcats came through. If USC can beat ASU and UCLA beats the Sun Devils as well, USC and ASU would be very close in terms of the overall bubble/at-large picture. That’s a result USC would take in a heartbeat.

“The fan base is generally happy with Enfield, but not really enthusiastic. Lincoln Riley has made football relevant again. Basketball was the sport of choice for USC fans the past few seasons, but football’s reemergence changed that in a heartbeat. Enfield needs to win NCAA Tournament games to really establish himself as a coach USC fans never want to let go of. He’s not at that point. The recruitment of Isaiah Collier does set up a 2023-24 season in which USC could be very, very good. USC fans will be happy if the Trojans can make the Sweet 16 next year. If they lose in the first round with Collier and (presumably) Iwuchukwu, a lot of fans will turn on Enfield.”

Prediction time: Does USC take advantage of an Arizona team that’s struggling and win in Tucson for just the second time 2009 or do the Wildcats get back on track and beat the Trojans for the fourth time in a row?

“Iwuchukwu just isn’t yet ready to make a high-level impact. Arizona’s guards are bound to have a good game at some point. They can’t be this bad forever, right? It just doesn’t line up well for USC in McKale. Wildcats win by 10. If USC can win in Tempe on Saturday against ASU, that would make for a successful Arizona road trip. I’d sign on the dotted line right now if that scenario was offered to me.”