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What to watch for when Arizona men’s basketball wraps up regular season at USC, UCLA

arizona-wildcats-mens-college-basketball-usc-trojans-ucla-bruins-preview-los-angeles-pac12-2023 Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season comes to an end this weekend, but for Arizona is might as well be considered part of the postseason based on the level of competition.

The Wildcats (24-5, 13-5 Pac-12) will visit USC (21-8, 13-5) on Thursday night and then wrap up the conference slate Saturday night at regular-season champ UCLA (25-4, 17-2). After that it’s the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, followed by the NCAA Tournament.

“This weekend and then leading into Vegas, it’s gonna be really fun, because it’s the top three teams,” junior wing Pelle Larsson said. “Us, USC and UCLA, so really good games and then obviously, single-game elimination. Pretty amped up.”

Arizona and USC are currently tied for second place, and a UA win would lock up the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tourney. Lose to the Trojans and the Wildcats most likely would get the No. 3 seed, though if they’re swept on the LA trip (which last happened in 2020) they could fall down to 4th depending on how ASU does on the LA trip.

Here’s what to watch for when the Wildcats tangle with the Trojans and Bruins:

Another chance to bounce back

There’s enough of a sample size to expect Arizona to play well against USC, and how it matches up against the Trojans is only part of the formula. Under Tommy Lloyd, the Wildcats are 7-0 immediately after a regular-season loss, with an average margin of victory of 16.1 points and each by at least 11.

“Every time we’ve lose we’ve responded,” Larsson said. “I guess you can say it’s kind of a get back mentality.”

Two of those bounceback opportunities have come against the Trojans, beating them 81-66 at McKale Center on Jan. 19 after losing by 19 at Oregon five days earlier, and last season the UA clinched the Pac-12 regular-season title with a 91-71 win at USC on the heels of a double-digit loss at Colorado.

As much as this has become a thing, Lloyd said his approach to coaching after a loss isn’t any different than if Arizona were riding a long win streak.

“Game to game,” he said. “Win or lose, I’m the same. Maybe you have their attention a little bit more here or there. It’s a game-to-game approach, always has and always will be.”

The opening act

USC is coming off a road sweep of the Rocky Mountain schools and has won four straight, putting it in position for a fourth straight top-3 finish in the conference. The Trojans are 14-1 at the Galen Center this season, their only loss coming in the season opener to Florida Gulf Coast, the school from which they poached coach Andy Enfield a decade ago.

“It looks like they’re playing their best basketball right now,” Lloyd said.

Guards Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson are both making pushes for all-conference recognition, combining for 31.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. Arizona held them to 11 and 15 points, respectively, in the first meeting, with Ellis going 2 of 11 from the field and Peterson 5 of 14.

“You’re living dangerously if you think you have the answers on on how to shut them down that are foolproof, because I don’t think they are any foolproof answers to shut those guys down,” Lloyd said.

The Trojans’ trip to Tucson in January was only the third career came for 7-foot freshman Vince Iwuchukwu, who collapsed during a summer workout because of a heart issue. He had four points with a block and a rebound in a then-high 15 minutes against Arizona, and since has started five times and has scored in double digits five times.

“They add the extra big guy now, so they have another 7-footer,” Lloyd said. “And then I think the sneaky thing about them is their role players, those young wings they have, are getting better and gaining confidence and gaining experience. I think when you look at their top seven, eight, nine guys, it’s pretty formidable.”

Conquering Pauley

With UCLA clinching its first regular-season Pac-12 title in a decade on Sunday, the finale against the Bruins loses a little bit of its luster. But while no championships will be on the line, there’s still plenty about the matchup for the Wildcats to get motivated for.

Arizona hasn’t swept the Bruins since 2009-10, though in 2014-15 it did win both meetings including in the Pac-12 tourney semifinals, and last year took two of three including the conference tournament championship.

The Wildcats also haven’t won at Pauley Pavilion since 2017, dropping their last four games there by an average of 14 points. Last year they lost by 16 at the tail end of a 3-game California road trip.

Finishing on the road against USC and UCLA might not seem ideal, but Lloyd admits it’s much better than wrapping up the regular season against opponents with a lot less to play for.

“We’re not asking for anything to be easy, and we don’t deserve for anything to be easy,” he said. “You play two really good teams in two tough environments. That’s great. We want to go out and we want to compete and we want to play well, and we want to play with great spirit and energy, and hopefully have a chance at the end.”

Arizona has not lost back-to-back games under Lloyd, but that possibility exists with this final trip. It wouldn’t be a shock to see the Wildcats head to Vegas on a 3-game skid, but Lloyd isn’t one to buy into the theory that you have to have momentum heading into the postseason.

“I think you’re fighting for that, and once you have it, you’re fighting to keep it all the time,” he said. “You always want to be playing well, because it feels good, but … I think you can create momentum in one 10-0 run. Create some momentum that you can really build on.”

Free throw math

Among the many what-ifs to come from the home loss to ASU were questions about Arizona’s free throw shooting, both the number of misses it had throughout the game and whether it should have added another at the end.

The UA was 23 of 34 from the line, dropping its season accuracy to 71.9 percent while in Pac-12 play it’s shooting 70.5 percent. That’s ninth in the conference, but the Wildcats’ 19.9 attempts per game is tops in the league (2.5 more than second-place USC) as are their 14.1 made foul shots per conference tilt.

And Arizona’s free throw rate, which measures foul shots per field goal attempt, is also first in the Pac-12 at 33.1.

In other words, the misses sting but not as much as they do for other Pac-12 teams who don’t get to take as many. Arizona is allowing only 15.3 free throw attempts per game in Pac-12 play, with opponents making 10.9 (71 percent).

USC and UCLA are in the middle of the pack in defensive free throw rate, and in its 58-52 win over UCLA at McKale Center last month the UA was 15 of 20 from the line compared to the Bruins going 6 of 11.

The Pac-12’s top (but ineligible) Sixth man

It was ahead of the first matchup with USC that Lloyd made a lineup change, inserting Cedric Henderson Jr. into the starting five and moving Larsson to the bench. To say that switch has worked would be an understatement.

While Henderson’s scoring is up almost 40 percent, Larsson has gone from averaging 9.9 points per game as a starter to 11.1 as a reserve and has also increased both his 2- and 3-point shooting percentage. That’s despite playing nearly the same minutes, now at 27.4 per game compared to 28.2.

So, what’s his secret?

“Well, I was Sixth Man of the Year last year,” Larsson said.

Larsson won the Pac-12’s Sixth Man award in 2022-23 with lower numbers than he has this season, but unfortunately he can’t repeat. That’s because to be eligible a player can start no more than one-third of a team’s conference games.

That’s 6.7. Larsson started the first seven in Pac-12 play before the lineup change.

Beyond experience in the reserve role, Larsson said another key to his success is the ability to get a feel for how a game is going before actually entering it.

“Sometimes it could be easier to kind of spectate and see what’s going on before you get out there,” he saiud. “Sometimes you have to go in there when the other team is on a run. So far, it’s been going good.”

Larsson has scored in double figures in six straight games, and despite fouling out he had 15 points against USC in January.

Zu vs. Jaquez

Though they may not defend each other much, the UCLA game will also give the Pac-12’s top two candidates for Player of the Year one last chance to shine and do so in front of their competition.

Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis leads the conference in scoring (19.6) and rebounding (9.1), something that has only been done eight times and not since Cal’s Leon Powe in 2005-06. UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. is fourth in scoring (17.0), fifth in rebounding (8.0).

That comparison leans heavily to Tubelis, but he enters the final weekend averaging 11.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in his last four, while Jaquez had four straight 20-point games before scoring 17 in the conference-clinching win at Colorado on Sunday.

In their previous meeting, Tubelis had 14 points and 10 rebounds but was 5 of 15 from the field, while Jaquez went for 12 and 11 on 5-of-17 shooting.