Thursday, February 24, 2011
USC-Arizona: Storylines abound
By Pedro Moura
Let's admit it: many USC basketball games this season have been lacking in storylines, boring, whatever you want to call it. Tonight's game against Arizona is none of those things, so here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's ultra-intriguing 7:30 p.m. game against the Wildcats, and no, none of them have to do with the 2,000 bobbleheads that will be given out to fans in attendance at the Galen Center:
1. Yes, Derrick Williams and Co. had first intended to attend USC. So what?
First, to get it out of the way: In June 2009, Arizona's Derrick Williams, Lamont Jones and Solomon Hill were all released from letters of intent to USC because of turmoil going on in Troy after former coach Tim Floyd resigned his post. All three of them eventually decided on the Wildcats, and, a week after the final release, former Arizona interim coach Kevin O'Neill was hired at USC. Since then, it's always been a pretty big story every time the two teams match up.
Williams -- and everybody else involved, for that matter -- is over it.
"I hear about it every time the USC game's coming up -- a week, two weeks, even a month before the game," the 19-year-old said by phone from Tucson this week. "Me and my teammates, the ones who were going to go to USC, we just try to play the best we can against USC every time we're out there.
"I guess it's woulda-coulda, but we're happy where we're at and with all the things that went on before we de-committed from there, it just wasn't a good fit. That's really it."
O'Neill said after a USC practice this week that he felt it was a "non-story."
"It would have been wonderful if those three guys were here, but they're not," he said. "And it would have been wonderful if I'd won the lottery last week, but I didn't."
Added USC senior forward Alex Stepheson: "We're kinda over hearing that, you know. They didn't come. It'd be cool if they did, but the situation didn't work out, so we've just gotta move on."
Williams, from nearby La Mirada, expects to have about 100 friends and family in attendance tonight, for what it's worth.
2. Can Vucevic be dominant?
Moving on to questions that will actually make a difference on the court tonight, perhaps the most important thing for USC is that Nikola Vucevic produces one of his best performances of the season. He's been really, really hot of late -- averaging 20.1 points and 10.9 rebounds over the last month -- so it won't have to come out of thin air, but it's especially key for Vucevic to produce against the Wildcats because they don't have anybody to guard him.
Correction: they really don't have anybody to guard him. Williams, at a listed 6-8, is Arizona's tallest contributor. 7-foot reserve Alex Jacobson's defensive skills pale in comparison to Vucevic's skills on offense.
Arizona's corresponding plan? Keep Vucevic outside the key, where he would be able to overpower any defender. Outside, the Wildcats will be able to match him with speed. So it's Vucevic's job to get himself inside and make his teammates pass him the ball early and often.
"Our plan is just to keep him outside the box, keep him outside the lane," Williams said of Vucevic. "Try and make him shoot over us, basically. He's gonna make a couple, but it's our job to hold him to less than he averages.
"If we hold him to less than what he averages, then I think will be good."
3. Matching up
Vucevic vs. any-Arizona-defender is a good matchup for USC, obviously. But just about every other matchup on the court tilts in Arizona's favor, especially when you consider that Arizona coach Sean Miller plays at least 10 players every game. Not according to Williams, though, who said USC is the worst defensive matchup for the Wildcats.
Interesting, isn't it? Another key matchup to follow will be whoever guards Arizona's Jones who went off for 17 points on 6-for-6 shooting when the two teams played in Tucson last month. We suspect that USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons will be assigned to him for at least some of the game -- despite the other backcourt mismatches that might create. Guards Jio Fontan, Donte Smith and Maurice Jones will need to play big on defense.
4. Who will play with more urgency?
You thought we were going to pick the Williams-O'Neill foul-gate as our last question, didn't you?
Nope. That was blown out of proportion a bit, O'Neill simply noting that Williams goes to the foul line more than any other player in the country and making a joke out of it, in typical O'Neill fashion. Williams responded on Twitter as any 19-year-old would. The bigger question, rather, is that of motivation in tonight's game.
For USC, postseason dreams are at risk. Lose tonight and kiss any hope of making the NCAA tourney with an at-large goodbye.
For Arizona a loss tonight sets it back a whole lot in the hope of earning a top seeding in the tournament. If the Wildcats end the season on an 11-game winning streak, they'd probably get a No. 2 seeding in the tourney -- no small feat for Pac-10 teams in recent years. A loss, though, with UCLA looming Thursday, would make a No. 3 or No. 4 the more likely goal.
5. Who will win?
Arizona, but by a very slim margin. First, remember that the Wildcats, despite their superb 23-4 record, hardly ever beat teams by more than 10 or 11 points. Last week's win over Washington? A one-point margin. Washington State? Nine- and two-point margins this season. Even the USC game in Tucson ended up as a nine-point victory for the Wildcats. So Arizona's not the best team at securing its leads late in the game, but who can argue with an .852 winning percentage?
A likely game trajectory: USC starts fast and opens up a sizable lead on Arizona, then relents and lets the Wildcats mostly back in it by the break. The teams hold relatively even for most of the second half but Arizona -- helped by its depth -- gets a few key baskets late to make the difference.