Arizona-Southern Cal Preview

Things didn’t go well for Arizona the last time it faced

Southern California in Los Angeles. With a Pac-10 tournament title

ultimately on the line, the Wildcats can’t afford another poor

effort against the Trojans.

The top-seeded and No. 16 Wildcats look to avenge that defeat as

they face the Trojans, who will be without suspended coach Kevin

O’Neill, in Friday night’s semifinal at Staples Center.

Riding an eight-game winning streak at the time, then-10th

ranked Arizona could not hold a three-point halftime lead and shot

35.8 percent to fall 65-57 at USC on Feb. 24.

Though the Wildcats (26-6) split the season series with the

Trojans, the memory of that defeat still lingers. Another

performance like that, and not only will Arizona fail to extend its

record number of tournament titles to five but also lose some

momentum heading into the NCAA tournament.

“In March, it’s all about ‘Did you win or lose?'” Arizona coach

Sean Miller said. “If you win, you play another day and we all know

we are in for a difficult challenge against USC.

“We are playing a quality team and we need to be at our best to

beat them on a neutral court.”

Fourth-seed USC (19-13), which might need to win this event to

earn an NCAA tournament bid, made an improbable run to the Pac-10

tournament championship as the sixth seed in 2009.

The Trojans are back in the tournament after being banned last

season after self-imposing sanctions for illegal benefits received

in 2007-2008.

Leading scorer Nikola Vucevic was a freshman on the 2009 team

and hopes to guide the Trojans to a similar run as the underdog

this year.

“We get more fired up for better teams and we play more

aggressively,” said the 6-foot-10 Vucevic, who had 25 points with

12 rebounds against Arizona last month.

Those hopes for making a similar run, however, took a strange

turn Friday evening when the school suspended O’Neill for the

remainder of the Pac-10 tournament after the coach got into a

verbal confrontation with an Arizona booster Thursday. O’Neill was

a former assistant for the Wildcats under Lute Olson and coach

there for the 2007-08 season.

Vucevic also helped contain Pac-10 player of year Derrick

Williams (18.9 points per game), who finished with a season-low

eight points at USC.

“He’s the best player in the Pac-10 and you want to do better

than him,” said Vucevic, who averages 17.3 points. “We did a good

job as a team stopping him.”

Williams, however, had 22 points and seven rebounds in Arizona’s

78-69 win over Oregon State on Thursday.

While the 6-foot-8 sophomore is trying to downplay the revenge

factor, he knows the Trojans present a serious challenge and one

where his team needs to rise to the occasion.

“Having the No. 1 seed, we’re one step closer to the Pac-10

championship,” said Williams, who scored 20 points in an 82-73 win

over USC on Jan. 29. “It’s like a home game for them. They play

right up the street, so we have to match their intensity and

hopefully we can.”

While Vucevic had his streak of eight straight double-doubles

snapped with seven points and five boards, Alex Stepheson had 14

with 16 rebounds in USC’s 70-56 quarterfinal win over California on


Stepheson has recorded double-doubles in four of the last five

games, including a 12-point, 10-rebound effort versus Arizona.

Arizona won the last two tournament meetings between the schools

since the event returned from an 11-year hiatus in 2002 – the same

year the Wildcats beat USC 81-71 for their last title.