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

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-preview-usc-trojans-ucla-bruins-tommy-lloyd-rebounding-pac12-2023 Arizona Athletics

Arizona enters arguably its toughest weekend of Pac-12 play to date already with more losses in the league than it had all of last season. At 4-3, the Wildcats enter are tied for fifth with Oregon but would be the No. 6 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament by virtue of the head-to-head loss at the Ducks last Saturday.

But there’s a lot of season left, and this weekend could go a long way toward determining if 11th-ranked Arizona (15-3) can stay in the conference title race as it hosts USC (13-5, 5-2) on Thursday night and No. 5 UCLA (16-2, 7-0) on Saturday.

Depending on what happens Thursday, it’s very possible that UCLA could be the first road favorite at McKale Center since Florida in 2012, and the first Pac-12 team to be favored over the Wildcats in Tucson since ASU in 2010.

Here’s what to watch for this weekend:

Rebounding on the boards

Arizona averages 9.4 more rebounds per game than its opponents, but that margin has been on the downswing of late. The Wildcats lost the board battle 42-31 at Oregon, and while they were plus-4 in the loss to Washington State they allowed 14 offensive rebounds, second-most this season and most since Utah had 17 offensive boards back in December.

Washington, which outrebounded Arizona by 1 on Jan. 5, had 12 offensive boards. The UA’s last five opponents have all pulled down at least 10 of their misses, and in all three losses it has allowed the at least a 35 percent offensive rebounding percentage.

This weekend’s opponents are second and first, respectively, in offensive rebound percentage in Pac-12 games. USC is at 34.2 percent in league play, including over 40 percent in three conference games, while UCLA is at 37 percent and has been over 40 percent in three straight games.

“I think a big issue is our guards don’t box out, we kind of watch and wait for (those) two to get it,” wing Cedric Henderson Jr. said.

Henderson said Arizona’s rebounding issues have had a direct affect on its offensive production, particularly in transition.

“You can’t get in transition, regardless of how good you are, if you’re not getting a stop,” he said. “We’re not great at turning things over, but we are good at stopping teams from getting a good shot off. But we’re giving them too many second opportunities, so we’re not gonna get our transition going.

Arizona is averaging 12 fast break points over the last five games, or 16.9 percent of its scoring, compared to a little over 18 (20.1 percent) during the 12-1 start.

Letting them loose

A week ago, coach Tommy Lloyd said he wanted his guards to be aggressive either in terms of hunting for shots or driving to the basket. He doubled down on that during his weekly radio show, adding that veterans Henderson and Courtney Ramey should be comfortable enough in the system now to “let them loose and do what they can do.”

Ramey had 23 points in the two games last weekend, hitting seven 3-pointers after making only six in the previous five games, but he also was just 8 of 23 from the field. Henderson was a combined 2 of 7, and for a while has looked like someone hesitant to shoot when open.

Those midseason struggles weren’t unexpected, Lloyd said.

“As these seasons go, it’s really funny, and it happens every year, you get a new player, whether it’s a freshman or a transfer, and there’s just a little bit of an ebb and flow to the season,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes they start out really good, they’re excited, we’re excited. Then you start coaching them, and you’re pointing out mistakes, and they’re good kids, so they’re trying not to make mistakes. And they can sometimes get caught in between a little bit, but it’s part of the growth process. You got to keep coaching them to help them get better in your system.

“And then at some point, you also got to give them the freedom to go out and be who they are. So hopefully we’re at that point of the season. It’s nothing anybody did wrong, and they both have really, really, really helped us this year. So we need them.”

Fighting fatigue

Arizona has played five games since returning from Christmas break, and while it has won three of those it has lost the second half four times. The exception was against Washington, when it outscored the Huskies 29-25 to complete a 14-point comeback on Jan. 5.

In the other four, the UA has been outscored 161-131.

“We’re getting a little bit tired, certain guys are,” Lloyd said, noting that changes in rotations and adjustments to in-season practices are ways to fix that. “That’s part of it. But part of it is you got to have some mental toughness in you and you got to fight through the fatigue as well.”

Arizona’s starters play nearly 73 percent of the minutes, which ranks as the 86th-most out of 363 Division I teams. The only Pac-12 team that leans on its starters more is USC, at 74.7 percent, but the addition of 7-foot-1 freshman Vincent Iwuchukwu to the mix should increase the Trojans’ bench usage.

UCLA is at 70.4 percent, though it may need to use its starters more than it has in most Pac-12 games for Thursday’s matchup at ASU. Still, Arizona will want to use its bench as much as possible against USC in order to help its starters recover better for a Saturday game that, like the previous two weekends, will tip less than 40 hours after the previous contest ends.

A return to the scene of the crime

Saturday’s visit from UCLA will also mark the first time the Bruins have been in McKale Center since forward Mac Etienne spit on some UA fans as he walked off the court following Arizona’s win, resulting in his arrest for misdemeanor assault.

Etienne, who was redshirting last season while recovering from an injury, was assigned a diversion program by a Tucson judge.

This season, the 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman has appeared in 14 of UCLA’s 18 games, averaging 1.1 points and 1.8 rebounds in 6.1 minutes per game.

Ring of Honor additions

The UCLA game will also include a halftime ceremony to induct former Arizona great Ernie McCray into the Ring of Honor, one of four players to be added this season.

McCray, who like Fleming (posthumously) was inducted via virtual ceremony in Feb. 2021, still holds the school record for most points in a game. He scored 46 for Arizona against Cal State-Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 1960, a mark that was almost topped by Damon Stoudamire when he went for 45 at Stanford in 1995.

These four players will bring Arizona’s total to 30 in the men’s basketball Ring of Honor, while Bennedict Mathurin will be the 31st by virtue of him winning Pac-12 Player of the Year last season.