No. 10 Arizona Wildcats (23-4, 12-2) at USC Trojans (15-12, 7-7)by Javier Morales on Feb. 24, 2011, under Sports
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A look at what to expect Thursday night as Arizona goes for its first sweep over USC since 2004-05 (more info to come at our partner site, WILDABOUTAZCATS.COM):
Matchups (Tipoff 8:30 p.m., Tucson time)
What’s going right: Senior point guard Donte Smith can be instant offense — making eight three-pointers against Cal last month to account for all of his scoring — and lately he has played under control as a starter. After USC coach Kevin O’Neill inserted him in the starting lineup last week, the Trojans swept the Bay area schools on the road. Smith had only four assists against Cal but he also had just three turnovers in 59 minutes.
What’s going wrong: Marcus Simmons, a 6-6 senior wing player, is struggling from three-point range, making only 28 percent of his attempts (7 of 25).
What’s going right: Sophomore wing player Solomon Hill (returning to his hometown Los Angeles) improved against the Washington schools last week. He averaged 10 points and six rebounds in the sweep of Washington State and Washington.
What’s going wrong: After a string of productive games, junior guard Kyle Fogg mustered only four points in 23 minutes against Washington last week.
Who has the edge? Funny how this all worked out, USC signees Derrick Williams and Lamont “MoMo” Jones and commit Hill now with Arizona after Tim Floyd was run out of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times published a story on April 9, 2009, after Jones signed his letter of intent with the Trojans, noting that Jones’ arrival signals the departure of Smith (who was expected to transfer). Now Smith will start against the guy who almost forced him out of the Trojans’ program. Few Pac-10 point guards have been as productive as Jones after the conference hit its midway point. USC newcomer Jio Fontan (a Fordham transfer averaging 9.8 points and 3.8 assists) has also been impressive in 17 games with the Trojans. Edge goes to Arizona because of how Jones’ enhanced, mature style of play has influenced the Cats in their eight-game winning streak.
What’s going right: The forward/post player tandem Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson is one of the best in the country. Vucevic leads the Pac-10 and is tied for eightth in the country with 16 double-doubles, while Stepheson is tied for third in the conference with eight double-doubles. The tandem also ranks No. 1 and No. 2 in the Pac-10 in rebounding with Vucevic grabbing 10.1 and Stepheson 8.7 rebounds per game. Through games of Feb. 17, Vucevic (T-16th) and Stepheson (47th) were the only pair of teammates in the country in the top 50 in rebounding.
What’s going wrong: Stepheson is in a position to draw plenty of fouls with his aggressive play around the hoop, but he puts his team in jeopardy of a failed possession if he goes to the foul line. He is shooting only 28 of 57 (49.1 percent) from the free throw line.
What’s going right: Derrick Williams does not need the referees’ help to lead the Pac-10 in field goal percentage (.631) and three-point field goal percentage (.675). The officials did not assist him to rebound performances of 19 at Washington State and 18 at Cal. He also leads the Wildcats in blocks (19) and steals (26) which has required the help of … you get the point.
What’s going wrong: Arizona coach Sean Miller and his staff likely want Jesse Perry to continue to improve his field-goal and free-throw shooting percentages. With the amount of shots Perry takes in the vicinity of the basket, he should be shooting better than his current 47.4 field-goal percentage. He is also shooting only 67.7 percent from the free-throw line.
Who has the edge?: Expect a charged Williams to play with a purpose against USC after O’Neill’s comment this week that Pac-10 refs protect him. Motivations aside, Williams just gets the job done. But USC has one of the best frontcourts in the country, now playing in their home arena. Because of the ability of Vucevic and Stepheson, and Perry improving but not where he should be yet with Arizona, I’ll give USC a slight edge here. Williams will probably let his play do the talking about that as well.
What’s going right: The Trojans basically have a seven-man rotation with two capable freshmen as their primary reserves — former starting guard Maurice Jones and wing player Garrett Jackson. Jones responded to his move to the bench last week in the Bay area by scoring 32 points in both games, including a 6-for-7 shooting performance from three-point range.
What’s going wrong: Jackson, a 6-6 player from Portland, was not as effective against Cal and Stanford, which means the Trojans swept that road trip with contributions from only six players. Jackson had more fouls (six) than points (five) against the Golden Bears and Cardinal.
What’s going right: Williams is the only UA player with a scoring average in double figures (19.7 points a game), but six players are averaging at least six points a game. That not only shows balance but also shows Miller’s ability to develop substitution patterns. Two reserves — Kevin Parrom (7.4) and Jamelle Horne (6.4) — are among those six players contributing to Arizona’s fruitful season.
What’s going wrong: Freshman guard Jordin Mayes (4.7) and junior guard Brendon Lavender (4.4) are not far behind the six-at-6.0 crew. What’s keeping them from joining that group is Mayes’ 9-of-22 free-throw shooting (40.9 percent) and Lavender’s field-goal percentage (39.2 percent, 38 of 97).
Who has the edge?: No contest here, Arizona hands down, although Maurice Jones can be a sparkplug off the bench for the Trojans. Horne is undoubtedly psyched to show O’Neill a thing or two after the coach quipped, “I’m still waiting for his NBA career to take off,” after O’Neill was told Horne pointed at him during the game in Tucson. But Horne can ill-afford to be too overzealous. Every player, starter and reserve alike, should think about the grand prize at stake here — the Pac-10 title, not proving O’Neill wrong.
Things seemed so grand for O’Neill and Arizona after the Wildcats defeated USC 80-69 in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 2007. It was Arizona’s fourth consecutive victory under the interim head coach. The Wildcats were 15-6 overall and 6-3 in the Pac-10. Current UA coach Miller said at the outset of this month that “when February comes, teams start to fracture”. The Cats, 6-0 this month, have bonded closer. O’Neill’s team in February three years ago fractured, going 2-5 en route to a disappointing 19-15 season. Keeping the players on the same page is not a cliche; it’s a reality. Miller has proven himself worthy in that regard at Xavier and now Arizona. O’Neill has coached enough years (14) and been given enough opportunities to do the same. Advantage: Miller.
With comparable perimeter talent and a frontcourt battle that features one of the nation’s finest (Williams) against one of the country’s top duos (Stepheson and Vucevic), this has the makings of a tightly-contested game. It certainly will be. Yes, Arizona has a deeper bench, but the Trojans’ roles are more defined with a scant 7-player rotation. Arizona wins this game by two 70-68 by using one of its strengths — free-throw shooting in the end. It would be fitting for Williams that he is the player who wins the game at the line after O’Neill’s comment this week. It can happen (if, go figure, Williams does not foul out first).
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