Preview: UA/USC

USC lost a heartbreaker to cross town rival UCLA last Saturday on a last second buzzer beater off the hands of Arron Afflalo. Arizona experienced a similar fate when Aaron Brooks banked in a running tear drop from eight feet with two seconds left. Tonight, these two teams will look to return to their winning ways in the Pac-10's featured match up.

Game 17: January 18, 2007

USC (13-5, 3-2 Pac-10) vs. Arizona (13-3, 4-2 Pac-10)

Arena: Galen Center

Capacity: 10,258

It's never easy to lose a game at the buzzer but losing one to your rival makes the taste in your mouth extra bitter. USC will look to erase the memories of last Saturday with a victory tonight over visiting Arizona.

The Trojans are led by Gabriel Pruitt, Nick Young and the ever improving Lodrick Stewart on the perimeter. On the inside, the play of freshman Taj Gibson has been a pleasant surprise this early in his career.

Gibson will most likely get the start tonight at center and will be called upon to use his athleticism and quickness to contain Arizona's versatile center, Ivan Radenovic, who can score outside just as efficiently as he can score inside.

For Arizona, the challenge is even more difficult as the Wildcats will look to stay in contention for a conference title by winning games in Los Angeles – easily the most difficult road trip in the Pac-10 this season. The Wildcats follow up tonight's game with a short trip across town to Pauley Pavilion where the UCLA Bruins lie in wait.

Arizona can't afford to look ahead though as the men of Troy are eager to get another shot and knocking down a ranked opponent. USC is 3-2 against Top 25 teams thus far.

The always heated game between the Trojans and the Wildcats when played in Los Angeles just got a little hotter in recent days as rumors have surfaced that USC's ticket office has been attempting to prevent Arizona fans from gobbling up remaining seats. Rumor or not, it was enough to get the attention of Arizona's coaching staff which means it has most likely found the ears of Wildcats players.

The game, as always, should be a great one. Last year USC won 77-70 in the nearby Sports Arena. How will tonight's game fair? Keep reading and find out how I think things will play out:

OFFENSE

Arizona is missing the "ense" in offense lately and has been just plain "off." The ebb and flow they displayed during their 12-game winning streak has not been there in the last three games. Do everything freshman Budinger admittedly is a bit tired in his first season at the D-I level, McClellan has been inconsistent from the perimeter of late, Shakur has had one too many turnovers of late because the team just isn't clicking, and Radenovic, at times, has been way to hesitant. Still, the Wildcats are averaging over 84 points per game and shooting an impressive 51.2 percent of their shots which is good enough for sixth in the country. Fortunately for the Wildcats all these problems are easily correctible as most have to do with getting their timing back. Unfortunately, the learning curve must be a short one because USC's defense allows offenses little room for error as the Trojans are holding opponents to a woeful 35.2 percent which is good enough for second in the country.

USC has three players averaging more than 10 points a game. The good news for the Trojans is that one player is a guard (Stewart), another is a forward (Young) and the last is their center (Gibson). That's nice balance. They are also getting steady production from Pruitt whose now back from early season suspension and younger players such as Lewis and Hackett. Hackett is a tough and gritty point guard who frees up Stewart to do his thing at his more natural two spot. As a result, Stewart has seen his point production from the perimeter go up (14.2 PPG), which has freed USC's slashing forwards to attack the basket more. It has also allowed Gibson, a natural back-to-the-basket post player, to operate down low against few double teams.

OFFENSIVE EDGE: ARIZONA

Arizona is due to break out of their slump and tonight could be the night. It may not be pretty like the Washington game but I expect the Wildcats to play much more aggressively in an effort to match USC's defensive intensity. If they do, expect players like Williams and Budinger to get to the basket as Arizona will use Radenovic to draw Gibson and Wilkinson away from the basket. Conversely, if they come out soft it will undoubtedly be a long night for Arizona. Hackett will try and fluster Shakur but I'll be shocked if he's successful. Shakur looks like he's on a mission right now and although Arizona's offense has dropped a step in recent weeks it's surely night because of Shakur. The senior guard repeatedly finds open teammates who are in a position to score. Right now the open shots aren't falling. If McClellan and Radenovic can hit a few early expect Arizona to look much smoother on offense than they have in games against Wazzu, Oregon State and Oregon.

DEFENSE

I have defended Arizona's defense all season but truth be told, the effort just hasn't been there in the past four games. Arizona has used a variety of zone defenses to confuse opponents all season and it has mostly worked. However, against Wazzu and Oregon, the Cougars and Ducks were patient enough to distribute the ball long enough to free up their very good spot shooters. Oregon made 15 of 30 three point field goals against Arizona in a two point win. If just one of those rims out, Arizona gets the victory. While I don't think USC will be as patient as either of these two teams I do think that the Trojans have enough perimeter scorers (Steward, Young, Pruitt) to make the Wildcats pay for not closing out on shooters.

I've seen several of USC's games this year and they're just nasty on defense. I thought Wazzu looked tough but their intensity pales in comparison to the defensive effort the Trojans put forth night in and night out. If Arizona expects to score, they will certainly have to do so by going over and through the Trojans because very few baskets will come easily. What oftentimes gets overlooked by fans watching NBA games is just how good NBA players are on defense. Sure, they do nothing for three and half quarters but when an NBA team needs a stop in a crucial game situation watch how effective the pro teams rotate and provide support. I mention this because Tim Floyd coached in the NBA and although his stint was nothing to write home about he proved one thing – he can coach defense on any level.

DEFENSIVE EDGE: USC

USC will not be afraid to go man against the Wildcats. USC is almost as tall and long as Arizona is at all five starting spots and is as quick if not quicker. The Trojans will definitely mix in some zone and may stick with it if Arizona remains cold from the perimeter. I do expect to see Arizona get after it much more tonight than in their last four games and I do expect them to be effective. Their zone defenses will provide constant support down low for Radenovic in defending Gibson and a more fleet of foot Budinger should be a bit more active in closing out on the perimeter. Regardless, holding teams to 35.2 percent shooting for the season is nothing to bat an eye at so USC gets the edge here.

REBOUNDING

Arizona is doing a fine job on the boards despite their scoring woes. Williams has seriously stepped up his play in all statistical categories, but especially rebounding. He had 12 boards against Oregon and is now averaging a 7.4 per game. Although Radenovic has been slumping in point production, his rebounding has also increased. He had 13 rebounds against the Ducks and for the season he's now averaging 7.9 per game. The small problem is that Shakur, Budinger and McClellan have all taken a step backward in this category and without the steady play of Brielmaier off the bench Arizona is getting no consistent inside presence from their reserves. Tonight reserve forward Hill may find himself on the floor in an environment that is more suited for his game. The Trojans are solid on defense but do play a bit on the edge, unlike the more disciplined Cougars and the more experienced Ducks. This may give him a chance to cut loose a bit and just be aggressive.

Gibson is clearly the chairman of the boards when it comes to rebounding for USC. The freshman is averaging 9.2 per game and is doing so with a ferociousness that is very appealing to a defensive-minded coach such as Floyd. USC does not get much support from any other player but as a team they are effective. One reason opponents' field goal shooting percentage is so low is that USC just doesn't give teams many second chance points.

REBOUNDING EDGE: EVEN

Tonight's game should be interesting in that USC is a very good defensive rebounding team while Arizona is a better than average offensive rebounding team. If the Trojans can keep Arizona off the offensive boards, they may be able to limit Arizona's possessions and keep this game in the low 60s. USC also has a pretty effective early offense that they'll employ if they determine that their opponent is not getting back on defense. Arizona struggled in their transition defense against Oregon and this could be an area of weakness that USC can exploit if the Wildcats have yet to see the error of their ways.

OVERALL

On paper it would appear that USC will look to slow this game down while Arizona will try to do everything in their power to speed the game up. In reality, it's just the opposite.

This season, the reason Arizona is scoring so many points is because they are running their offense as effective as ever. The result is that they are getting very good looks at the basket and unlike in years past, this year they have the players to make those shots whether they're in the lane or behind the arc.

Hence, Arizona is not afraid of teams who want to play in the half court.

USC on the other hand thrives on anarchy. They are looking to disrupt the flow of the game every time they step on the floor. They are explosive and quick, but are just a bit too young right now to effectively and consistently score against an opponents set defense.

Tonight, if Arizona is taking quick shots they'll be playing right into USC's hands. Similarly, if USC tries to slow things down and bait the Wildcats into a possession game whether they know it or not, they'll be playing into the hands of the more experienced team who is looking for structure in their offensive sets to return them to their usually efficient ways.

While I like USC, I do think Arizona's experience will carry them through what will be their most difficult road game to date this season.

ARIZONA 78 USC 71


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