USC’s O’Neill not into bubble talk, leery of Arizona’s ‘high-energy’ teamby Javier Morales on Mar. 10, 2011, under Sports
LOS ANGELES — USC coach Kevin O’Neill may claim to not know where the NCAA tournament selection committee is meeting this week, but he definitely is aware of how dangerous Arizona is as the No. 1 seed of the Pac-10 tournament.
“The Arizona team, we’re talking about a legitimate top 10 or 12 team that shoots the ball from three better than anybody,” O’Neill told reporters Thursday after the Trojans defeated Cal 70-56 in the first quarterfinal game played at the Staples Center.
“We’ll have to defend and defend and defend until the end of the game.”
A reporter later asked O’Neill if beating the 16th-ranked Wildcats (26-6) will solidify USC’s chance of making the NCAA tournament. The Trojans (19-13) have won six of their last seven games, including a 65-57 decision over the Wildcats two weeks ago in L.A. Arizona was ranked No. 10 at the time.
USC has also beaten Washington and Tennessee on the road, and UCLA and Texas at the Galen Center. The Trojans barely lost at Kansas 70-68 on Dec. 18. How’s this for irony? When O’Neill was Arizona’s interim head coach in 2007-08 the Wildcats finished as a bubble team that made the NCAA tournament with a 19-13 record. That’s the same record USC has today.
“I have no idea,” O’Neill said about USC’s NCAA tournament chances. “It makes for good bubble talk, bracketology talk and all of that.
“But the bottom line is there is a committee of guys in Indianapolis — is that where they are? Indianapolis or wherever it is. … They’re in Indianapolis and they’ve been doing this all year. Do I think we deserve to get in? If we’re in the best 68, we’ll get in.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller said USC is among the top 35 teams in the country.
“I firmly expect them to be in the NCAA tournament,” Miller said. “So with that being said, we’re playing a very quality basketball team tomorrow. We have to be at our best to beat them on a neutral court.”
Arizona, which led the Pac-10 in three-point shooting with a 39.7 percentage, validated Thursday O’Neill’s claim about it shooting the three better than anybody. The Wildcats made 9 of their first 13 three-point attempts in their 78-69 win over Oregon State. They finished 11 of 21 (52.4 percent) from beyond the arc.
Derrick Williams set a career-high with five three-pointers. He finished 5 of 6 from that range after making his first five attempts.
Lamont “MoMo” Jones made three of his first four three-point attempts and finished 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. Jones made consecutive three-pointers and Williams added another to start the second half as Arizona built a 49-39 lead with 17:39 left in the game. Jones had only three points in the first half on a three-pointer. He made only 1 of 4 attempts from the field.
“It was just there for me to take,” Jones said when asked if he consciously took his shots or Oregon State’s defense allowed him the opportunity.
“Once I hit the first one in the second half, things opened up. I did not play so good in the first half. I wanted to turn it up in the second half. It just so happens that those were the shots that were falling for me. I have to step in and knock them down and that’s what I did.”
O’Neill also praised Arizona as a “very high-energy, high-level, high-intensity team that is extremely well-coached.” That intensity must start with Jones, the primary ball-handler. Arizona forward Solomon Hill, who recorded a career-high 11 rebounds against Oregon State, said he wants to complete that high level of effort around the basket.
“Attacking things the right way is important,” said Hill, who is from Los Angeles and committed to play at USC before signing with Miller. “Once we get after it inside, it opens things up for our perimeter guys. That’s what happened against Oregon State.
“We have to pressure the middle as much as possible against USC. We can’t leave post alone 1-on-1. I plan on being strong on the boards, especially on the offensive end.”
USC’s frontcourt duo of Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson dominated Arizona two weeks ago. They combined for 37 points and 22 rebounds. Vucevic was especially damaging to Arizona’s hopes, scoring 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field. Vucevic and Stepheson combined to go 13 of 14 from the free-throw line. The number of attempts from the line indicates how aggressive they play.
Ominous news for Arizona: Vucevic had a subpar game Thursday against Cal. He finished with seven points and five rebounds. He also had four turnovers. That means O’Neill will undoubtedly get in his ear before Friday’s game. Vucevic will also be individually motivated.
He played only 27 minutes against Cal, mostly because he was whistled for his third foul early in the second half. O’Neill said that was a blessing in disguise because that allowed the more fleet-footed Marcus Simmons to help defend Cal’s sizable frontline that includes Harper Kamp and Mark Sanders-Frison.
Kamp and Sanders-Frison had one of their worst performances, combining for only eight points and 11 rebounds. Their struggles were reminiscent to that of Derrick Williams, who had a season-low eight points at USC two weeks ago.
“I told one of the officials thanks for giving Nick his third foul because he’s not playing worth a damn today,” O’Neill said. “We played better without him defensively because of Marcus’ quickness.
“That’s not a knock on Nick. The fact of the matter is his plus-minus today wasn’t good. The other guys stepped up and did the job.”
More Arizona basketball coverage from the TucsonCitizen.com Sports Network:
Morales: Arizona notes: Wildcats stem tide of poor Pac-10 tourney performances; Twitter silence; star watch
Scott Terrell: Arizona not about to be slapped around by Oregon State