Arizona can’t afford to overlook USC prior to UCLA matchup
No. 4 Arizona has a huge matchup looming against No. 5 UCLA on Saturday, but the Wildcats can’t look that far ahead.
Arizona (25-3, 14-1 Pac-12) will look to maintain its conference lead when it hosts USC (21-6, 8-6) on Thursday night in Tucson.
Looking ahead, the game against the Bruins will be only the seventh matchup of top-5 teams in league history.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday he expects his team to be at full strength. Starting point guard Kadeem Allen missed two games last week because of a dislocated pinky finger on his right hand. Starting center Dusan Ristic missed a game-and-a-half because of a grade-1 sprained ankle.
“We expect both guys to be able to play Thursday and, in some ways, we expect both guys to be fully functional as well,” Miller said.
Arizona entered Wednesday night’s games with a one-game lead on Oregon in the Pac-12 race. USC is in fifth, considered to be safely into the NCAA Tournament at the moment.
The Trojans have lost two consecutive games, but their 21-6 start is still the team’s best since the 1992 season. The game against Arizona concludes a three-game Pac-12 gauntlet, with USC having lost 80-71 at home to then-No. 7 Oregon and 102-70 at UCLA, which was ranked sixth.
“We were right there halfway through the second half,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Our defense was not as exceptional as the first time we played them.”
Enfield also noted that the Trojans shot less than 40 percent from the field in the recent losses to the Ducks and Bruins, and they made just 37.3 percent in a 73-66 home loss to Arizona on Jan. 19.
USC didn’t have power forward Bennie Boatwright because of injury in that game, but Arizona played without guard Allonzo Trier, who missed the first 19 games because of an NCAA suspension.
Trier is averaging 13.9 points in nine games. Boatwright is averaging 17.4 points in the five games since returning from a knee injury. At 6-foot-10, he’s a dangerous 3-point shooter.
“He’s one of our conference’s overall toughest matchups,” Miller said.
So, too, is Arizona power forward Lauri Markkanen, who picked up his second Pac-12 Player of the Week honor and some national awards for his performance in a sweep of the Washington road trip. The 7-foot freshman from Finland averaged 22.5 points and 12 rebounds in two games, grabbing a total of 13 offensive boards and scoring closer to the basket.
That has been an emphasis, despite his 45.7 percent accuracy from 3-point range.
“He didn’t need to just make a bunch of 3-point shots to have a big offensive night,” Miller said. “That is something we are working on to continue to establish.”
Markkanen averages a team-high 15.7 points. Trier, wing Rawle Alkins (11.3 points per game), Ristic (11.2) and guard Kobi Simmons (10.8) are also double-digit scorers.
USC has six players averaging at least 9.0 points per game, led by center Chimezie Metu (14.2), Boatwright (14.1) and guard Elijah Stewart (13.4). Guard Jordan McLaughlin averages 12.7 points and 5.1 assists.
USC, though, is just 13 of 49 from 3-point range in its two-game skid.
“We have three of the top seven teams here back-to-back in a week-and-half stretch,” Enfield said. “And if you’re shooting 20-some percent from the 3-point line, you making it really hard on yourself.”