USC takes on No. 13 Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. — All of a sudden there seems to be trouble in paradise when it comes to the top of the Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball standings.

The top of the conference is tumbling down the home stretch of the regular season.

Conference leader Arizona is riding a two-game losing streak as is Southern California, currently tied for second place in the conference. The two meet on Saturday in the McKale Center in front of a nationally televised audience.

Arizona coach Sean Miller went as far as saying “it doesn’t feel that way (to be at the top of the league) because we’re really going down a different path with our effort and our defense.”

No. 13 Arizona is 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the conference. USC is 17-8, 8-4 after losing to Arizona State. Coincidentally, the two teams have followed similar paths, including being part of the current FBI investigation into college basketball (more later).

Each lost three consecutive games near the beginning of the season before going on significant win streaks. USC won six in a row while Arizona went on a nine-game tear. Both streaks came before the current two-game slides.

“I think we need to answer the bell right now,” Arizona center Dusan Ristic said after the Wildcats lost 82-74 to UCLA on Thursday night. “If we don’t do it, it’s gonna get ugly. It’s up to us to change something. We have to bounce back as soon as possible.”

Their attitude might be a start. It appears Arizona isn’t playing with the same passion it has in the past and clearly not with the same swagger as in past years. Losing hasn’t helped, either. Ristic said after Thursday’s loss, Miller met with the team briefly (uncharacteristically) but was not happy.

“Obviously nobody is happy on the team right now,” said Ristic, a senior. “We don’t lose games at home like this. This is Parker (Jackson-Cartwright’s) and my third time losing at home. It’s one of the worst feelings. Nobody is happy. We have to bounce back.”

That’s bounce back — again. More than a month ago after losing to Colorado, Miller said he wasn’t sure if his message was getting across to his team and wasn’t sure why it wasn’t playing hard.

That’s very clear on the defensive end. In preparing for UCLA and USC, Miller semi-seriously said, “With our defense, (UCLA and USC) could put up 100 on us.”

UCLA didn’t, but it shot 51 percent from the floor. USC is just as capable as it averages 77.7 points, fifth best in the conference. Again, however, Miller admitted his team has “never been a great defensive team” this season.

It won’t get any easier with USC, a team that is getting a seemingly healthy Bennie Boatwright back. After missing two games prior to the losing streak, he played just nine minutes in a return vs. UCLA. Against ASU, he played 28 minutes and scored 18 points.

“He played hard,” Trojans coach Andy Enfield told the Los Angeles Times. “The big guys played great, they gave us good effort.”

Enfield was pleased with the effort against ASU in the 80-78 last-second defeat, saying a few little things created the loss, but, “Our guys played hard and I’m proud of them. We’re going to stick together and try to win on Saturday.”

It’ll be the one-and-only meeting between the two teams this season after each started the season with the FBI cloud over them. On the surface each team has moved on — although the investigation is ongoing — given the two team’s overall success.

“It’s a credit to our coaching staff and our players that they control only what they can control,” Enfield said. “And that is to become better basketball players, to play together as a team and to go compete and do their best. That’s what they’ve done. We’re very proud of our players this year. We still have a long season to go and we hope to have a success end to the Pac-12 season.”