Arizona will look for revenge on USC Friday night at the Staples Center as both teams advanced on the first day of Pac-10 Tournament action.
In what was supposed to be a competitive game, USC simply manhandled California and ran it out of the Staples Center with a 14-point victory.
The Trojans are playing their basketball of the season at the right time, and with seven wins in its past night games have played their way back into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Kevin O'Neill's team finished fourth in the Pac-10 with a 10-8 conference record and currently own a 19-13 mark overall. These two teams split their games during the regular season, with the home team winning in each contest. In their most recent meeting, the Trojans defeated the Wildcats 65-57 at the Galen Center.
For USC, the name of the game is defense. It ranked first in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, limiting its opponents to just 62.7 points per game. When the Trojans have been able to prevent the other team from reaching 60 points, they are 13-0 on the season.
Their strength defensively is due in large part to First Team All-Pac-10 performer Nikola Vucevic. The 6-foot-10 junior finished the regular season with 17.7 points per game, which ranked him third in the conference. He was also the Pac-10's leading rebounder at 10.3 boards per contest, and his 1.3 blocks per outing ranked fifth.
Vucevic has had success this season against the Wildcats, as he's averaged 21.5 points and 9.5 boards in two appearances, including a 25 point, 12 rebound performance on February 24th.
The Trojans have to be very encouraged with their victory on Thursday, considering Vucevic scored only seven points. He'll be looking to return to form on Friday and continue his run of good games against UA.
USC has another talented big man in Alex Stepheson, who is coming off perhaps the best performance of his career against Cal when he posted 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in 40 minutes. The 6-foot-10 senior trailed only Vucevic in the Pac-10 in rebounding, as he pulled down nine boards per game.
Stepheson also posted career highs this season with 9.9 points in 32.5 minutes. Against the Wildcats this season he's averaging 9.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, including a double-double two weeks ago with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
O'Neill's team has always had presences along the interior, but its recent hot streak can be attributed to its strong guard play. Fordham transfer Jio Fontan went through a rough stretch in the middle of the season, but is averaging 13.2 points in his last five games.
That streak includes a season-high 21-point performance against the Wildcats in the previous meeting. During the regular season, the 6-foot junior was second on the team with 10.5 points per game, and he was the team's leading assist man with four per game.
Fontan is also the top three-point threat on the team, as he knocked down 37.3 percent of his tries from beyond the arc on the season and 41.1 percent of his attempts overall. He's coming off a game against Cal in which he scored 12 points and dished out four assists.
As important as Fontan is offensively, Marcus Simmons is equally as important on the defensive end. The Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year obviously has a knack for being a shutdown defender while averaging just 4.5 points per game. Against Cal, the 6-foot-6 senior battled foul trouble and contributed seven points and five rebounds.
Donte Smith started the season playing off the bench, but his strong play down the stretch earned him a starting job. His 9.9 points per game was tied for third overall on the team with two other Trojans, but the 5-foot-10 senior's 34.5 percentage from three and his 36.4 field goal percentage overall indicates that he hasn't been as efficient as he'd like to be.
The Trojans have a major spark off the bench in All-Pac-10 Freshman team selection Maurice Jones. The 5-foot-7 guard tied with Stepheson and D. Smith for third on the team with 9.9 points per game, and his 3.3 assists per game rank second behind Fontan.
Jones is also tied with Vucevic for the team lead with 34.9 minutes per game. His quickness allows him to be very active in the passing lanes defensively, and his 2.2 steals per game ranked third in the Pac-10 during the regular season.
Against Cal on Thursday, Jones did a little bit of everything with a team-high 16 points, three rebounds, four assists, and two steals.
He's been a major source of energy for the Trojans, and he'll be relied upon to penetrate and open up lanes for Vucevic and Stephenson to get easy shots near the rim.
Garrett Jackson will likely make an appearance, but his impact will be minimal. The 6-foot-7 freshman averaged just 3.6 points in 11.6 minutes per game.
Against OSU on Thursday, Arizona was careless with the basketball and turned it over 16 times. Jared Cunningham picked off six passes by himself, a startling number of turnovers generated by one player.
USC poses problems for UA because it has three Cunningham's in M. Smith, Fontan, and Simmons. All three are very active in the passing lanes, have great instincts and are good at forcing turnovers. Arizona needs to be crisp and precise in its passing and try to keep the turnovers in single digits to give itself the best chance at winning.
Arizona will need to be much more effective offensively this time around against USC. 15 days ago, the Wildcats just hit just 19 of their 53 shots, which translates to a 35.8 shooting percentage.
If UA can gets it shooting percentage in this game back towards its season mark of 47.3 percent, it will be another factor that works in favor of the Wildcats.
In its past 20 games in Los Angeles, Arizona is just 5-15. With the game at the Staples Center, the atmosphere will be heavily pro-USC. UA needs to jump out to a quick start offensively to quiet the crowd and build confidence, both things that will come in handy down the stretch as the game winds down.
Wildcats look for revenge on USC
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