Arizona is coming off a tough road loss that saw the Wildcats' thin lineup get stretched even further by foul trouble and the opposing team's quickness.
Arizona enters the game with a 19-9 record overall and 10-5 record in conference. It is coming in winning 5 of its last 6, with the lone loss coming Saturday against the Washington Huskies, 79-70.
The Wildcats will finish the regular season against USC, UCLA, and Arizona State. All are winnable games, and should be viewed as vital games to keep postseason hopes alive. Any slip ups would burst any at-large bids that Arizona has at this point.
The first obstacle for Arizona will be the Trojans of USC. The Trojans are coming off a 64-54 loss to cross-town rival UCLA. They enter Thursday's game with just six wins on the season to go with 21 losses on the year. They bring a 1-13 Pac-12 record as they have been the conference punching bag this season. It is not entirely their fault, though.
USC had some bad luck to start the season, losing starting point guard Jio Fontan to a torn ACL and reserve forward Curtis Washington to a labrum injury before the first game even started. The loss of Fontan was enough for the Trojans to start questioning their season. After playing just 4 games, sophomore forward Evan Smith was lost for the season after aggravating an older labrum injury.
On January 20, USC announced that junior forward Aaron Fuller would miss the remainder of the season with an anterior labrum tear. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Fuller was a starter for the Trojans and another big blow for the team. The junior was averaging 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds on the season. Against Arizona he only had a single free throw, a pair of rebounds and a block.
A week later, USC announced that its starting center would miss the remainder of the season. 7-foot, 255-pound sophomore DeWayne Dedmon was USC's second leading rebounder, with 5.5 a game, before he suffered a torn MCL against Colorado. Dedmon is regarded as one of USC's top NBA prospects and was one of its top players this season.
He was a force against Arizona, scoring 11 points on 4 of 8 from the field. Dedmon also added a team-high 8 rebounds, four of them offensive. He was a force on the glass, but was pushed around by Jesse Perry who scored 20 against Southern Cal the first time around.
Without these players, USC will have a razor thin margin of error, especially only playing a six-man rotation. It will be lead by 5-foot-7 guard Maurice Jones. With the loss of Fontan before the season started, the 155-pound sophomore has been thrust into the leadership role. Jones has done well this season and in the first meeting against the Wildcats, he played a game-high 37 minutes, scoring a team-high 14 points. The sophomore added 3 steals and USC's only 3-pointer of the night. He also went a perfect 7 of 7 from the free throw line.
Joining Jones in the backcourt is junior guard Greg Allen. At 6-foot-3, 180-pounds, Allen only logged 8 minutes against Arizona, accumulating 2 points, a steal, and a rebound. Since then, Allen has stepped up his game, earning more minutes and a few starts. In the Trojans' last game, he played 34 minutes, and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds while putting nine points on the scoreboard. Allen should play big minutes on Thursday.
Rounding out the three-guard lineup is 6-foot-5 freshman Byron Wesley. Wesley, 210-pounds, has been a strong player this whole season. When Arizona played in the Galen Center, Wesley had eight points to go with seven rebounds. He also had a steal and an assist. Wesley is still evolving as a college athlete and has had a few off games like most freshmen do, but has answered nicely, being consistent for a majority of the season.
The sophomore forward Garrett Jackson has been called on by USC coach Kevin O'Neil to replace Aaron Fuller. The 6-6, 225-pound Jackson played a modest 18 minutes against the Wildcats in Los Angeles, but that was also before the loss of Fuller. In those 18 minutes, he tallied 4 points and 3 rebounds on the stat sheet. Since the injury, Jackson has earned more minutes and a spot in the starting lineup.
Against UCLA, Jackson was on the court for 34 minutes, having the second-most points on the team with 15. He also stole the ball four times, blocked three Bruin shots, and grabbed three boards. With more minutes, Jackson is evolving into a player that USC desperately needs.
Filling out the starting lineup is junior center James Blasczyk. At 7-foot-1, 260-pounds Blasczyk is definitely a huge presence on the court. He is in a position similar to Jackson. Blasczyk is being called on to fill the hole that opened when Dedmon went down with injury. Against the Wldcats, he scored justtwo2 points, gathering three rebounds in the process. With Dedmon's absence, Blasczyk has flourished, playing major minutes. Against the Bruins, the junior scored six points and grabbed three boards.
Southern Cal really doesn't have much of a bench, as the only player to receive a modest amount of court time is guard Alexis Moore. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman started against Arizona the first time around, but has since lost his starting spot to Allen. Moore had a game-high five assists in 36 minutes. He was 1 for 10 from the field, scoring just two points, but made up for a low scoring effort by grabbing four balls off the glass and taking two steals.
Another player we could see off the bench is 5-foot-10, 175-pound Daniel Munoz. The junior guard didn't log any playing time in the first meeting, but has been used to give the guards, especially Maurice Jones, a few minutes of rest. Munoz is only averaging half a point per game he plays, but does average 8 minutes of quality playing time when he does see the court.
Arizona can't look past the Trojans, but it shouldn't be a real power struggle if the Wildcats are focused. The Trojans have only won one Pac-12 game, a 17-point blowout over a struggling Utah team. USC doesn't look very dangerous on paper and there is a reason why. At least three Trojans who should be starting on Thursday won't play due to injuries.
The Wildcats beat the Trojans 57-46 at the Galen Center almost a month and a half ago. The USC team that enters McKale will be two starters lighter and physically and mentally worn from the long season. Arizona can feel their pain, as they have lost two players this season as well (Kevin Parrom and Sidiki Johnson).
Southern California has the ability to ability to upset Arizona at McKale, but a lot of things would need to fall into place for that to happen. The Trojans would need two or three players to have career games and the Wildcats would have to play even worse than they played against Utah in their last home game.
The combination is unlikely, as the Cats know that they need to win their last three games to keep post season hopes alive. With the season winding down, every play counts.