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Friday, March 11, 2011
USC-Arizona: Playing for a tournament bid

By Pedro Moura

Here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's 6:10 p.m. game against Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament:

1. Arizona can run. Can USC keep up one day after a game?

Listen to Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill: "Arizona is a very high energy, high level, high intensity team that's extremely well coached. It has one of the best players in the league as their center piece. So we know that if we don't control tempo and let them play at their pace, we'll have problems.
"We're talking about a legitimate top 10 or 12 team that shoots the ball better from three than anybody. You know, we just know we were fortunate the last game to win."

That's not the type of team you'd pick to play for your first back-to-back game this season, but that's who USC's got on the schedule, and the Trojans will attempt to beat the running-and-gunning Wildcats at the Staples Center on Friday to earn a trip to the finals of the Pac-10 tournament.

The two teams split their season series, each squad winning on its home court. Arizona's a team with a number of talented swingmen, which naturally presents quite a few challenges for a short-handed and small USC team, but there is a blueprint to beating this team, which we'll get into later.

USC is focused on bringing up its play another notch, though, from its 70-56 win over Cal Thursday in the Pac-10 quarterfinals.

"Arizona’s a great team," senior forward Alex Stepheson said. "I think we gotta take it up to another level and just try to be aggressive -- that’s the key."



2. Tournament distractions?



Some bracket prognosticators now have USC in the tournament, and it's conceivable the Trojans could get in even with a loss tonight. But a win -- while it wouldn't seal it, in our minds -- would get them a whole lot closer to a bid.

It's easy to see how that would be a distraction as USC readies to face a team that will require a great effort to surmount, but the Trojans say it's not on their minds whatsoever.

“We’re not really worried about the tournament right now," said point guard Jio Fontan, who has truly become the leader of the team since he became eligible in mid-December. "We’re in one, so we’re trying to win the tournament we’re in now. Whatever happens with that tournament, when Sunday comes, hopefully we’ll be able to say we’ve done enough up to that point and we can’t control anything past that."

3. Other distractions?

O'Neill and his wife got in a verbal altercation with an Arizona booster in the team's hotel lobby last night, and the second-year Trojans coach apologized to his team in a Friday morning meeting in preparation for the Wildcats. Players and coaches always say these types of incidents don't affect their on-court production, but it'd be hard to imagine a situation where O'Neill's prep doesn't suffer at least somewhat because of the incident.

His phone's been ringing non-stop Friday, undoubtedly. Will he be able to put that aside on the Staples Center court Friday night and coach?

4. Which Derrick Williams will USC see?

The first time the teams played, Williams had 20 points in only 18 minutes. The second time, he had only eight points in 36 minutes.

Those were clearly two different Derrick Williamses, and which Williams USC sees Friday night at the Staples Center will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.

For his part, Williams seems over the eight-point stinker of a performance he put up at the Galen Center.

"I'm bound to have one bad game in a season, and I think that was my bad game," Williams said Thursday. "Not everybody's going to play perfect. That was that game, and I'm over that game.

5. Who will win?

The Trojans will pull off the upset, holding Williams to a subpar game and spreading the Wildcats' offensive production around to the rest of the team.

Point guard Lamont 'Momo' Jones might be the X-factor for Arizona. He's a very streaky player -- aside from a six-game double-digit point streak earlier in the conference season, he has essentially waffled between good offensive games and bad offensive games on a day-to-day basis.

The problem for USC is that Jones is talented enough to require the defensive services of Marcus Simmons. If he does enough to warrant it, it'll allow the other Wildcat scorers to go against significantly smaller players, and that could lead to trouble. Realize this: other than Williams, UA has four more legitimate scorers -- Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry, especially -- who measure in at 6-6 or taller, plus center Kyryl Natyazhko. The Trojans don't have enough defenders to guard those guys if Arizona's Sean Miller chooses to go big, and USC's only reserve forward, freshman Garrett Jackson, struggled mightily on defense against Cal.

Of course, if USC's Nikola Vucevic doesn't have a big game, none of this matters. Vucevic needs to go for 20+ for the Trojans to win.