Tonight the Arizona Wildcats and USC Trojans compete for the Pac-12 conference title. Yesterday, Arizona beat UCLA and USC beat Oregon for the right to play in this game. In their only matchup this year, Arizona beat USC 81-67 in Tucson.
#11 Jordan McLaughlin 6’1″ G (Sr.)
#2 Jonah Mathews 6’3″ G (So.)
#30 Elijah Stewart 6’5″ G (Sr.)
#4 Chimezie Metu 6’11” F (Jr.)
#31 Nick Rakocevic 6’11” F (So.)
Off the bench: #0 Shaqquan Aaron 6’7″ G (Jr.), #1 Jordan Usher 6’7″ G (Fr.), #5 Derryck Thornton 6’2″ G (So.)
Offense: The Trojans average 76 points per game and are 2nd behind Arizona in the Pac12 in 2-point Field Goal %, shooting 53%. They like to run and will look for lobs and passes over the defense when on the break. They rely on dribble penetration and 1-on-1 plays through their pick and roll and motion offenses. They are a decent but not great 3-point shooting team. Jonah Mathews is their best perimeter shooter at 45% from 3. Metu and Rakocevic are very good interior players who are also athletic and versatile for their size. McLaughlin and Stewart are both very good 1 on 1 players.
Defense: USC plays one of the most interesting zone defenses I’ve seen this year. They will play some man but mainly will stick to a “floating” 2-3 zone that almost looks like it wants to be UNLV’s legendary “amoeba” defense from the Tarkanian era. It isn’t quite that, but it is very effective, particularly against smaller teams. They have the 2nd best defense in the Pac-12 allowing only 70 points per game on average. They are 2nd in the Pac-12 in forcing turnovers and 1st in steals, averaging 7 per game.
Strengths: Versatility and experience. This is a veteran team that plays well together and likes to get to the rim either through dribble penetration or lob plays. They have good size inside but will still be outmatched against Arizona’s Ayton and Ristic. They are good at getting to the free throw line as they lead the league in both free throws made and free throws attempted.
Weaknesses: Lack of depth. Streaky. This is a team that puts up points in spurts and has a tendency to go through some spells of not getting good looks on offense. Their lack of interior depth could pose problems against Arizona’s bigs.
Summary: This is a team that deserves a lot of respect in just getting to the Pac-12 title game. They lost one of their best players (De’Anthony Melton) early in the season to the FBI investigation and recently lost Bennie Boatright for the year due to injury. With those 2 on board this would have been one of the best and deepest teams not just in the Pac12 but in the country.
They put the screws to Oregon yesterday in a convincing 74-54 win. Their defense was very aggressive and was effective at forcing the Ducks into sloppy offense. The game was tied at 17 in the 1st half, but by halftime the Trojans had gone on a 20-6 run to take a 37-23 lead. They then, to start the 2nd half, went on a 16-2 run and took a 53-25 lead from which Oregon was not able to recover. They had, for the game, 10 steals and forced Oregon into 19 turnovers.
To expand on a statistic from yesterday that may not be very relevant but that I found interesting: Arizona is undefeated (13-0) when shooting 40% or better from 3-point range. Now to add to that: USC is undefeated (14-0) when shooting 40% or better from 3 point range. It’s a stat that has held true all year for both teams. Let’s see if it does for this championship game as well.
Keys for the Cats: Arizona is coming off one of its best defensive performances of the year. They held UCLA to 67 points (which included an extra 5 minutes of an overtime period) on 40% field goal shooting and 29% 3-point shooting. UCLA was averaging 82 points per game coming into that contest. Parker Jackson-Cartwright gave Aaron Holiday fits on defense and made him look like an average guard, which is not easy to do. The Cats will, however, have to be more aggressive on the boards in order to win this game. They had some trouble rebounding against UCLA and didn’t get an offensive rebound until the second half.
The Cats will be able to get some good post looks against USC’s zone defense. If Ayton (or Ristic for that matter) stays patient against USC’s aggressive defense and is able to get the ball to an open player when he is double teamed, they should get quite a few open shots and easy buckets. Even though USC’s 2-3 zone is a little aberrant it is still susceptible to free-throw line/elbow area open shots and lobs right under the basket. They simply do not have the muscle to keep Ayton away from the glass. The guard matchups will be exceptional. McLaughlin/Stewart/Mathews vs. Cartwright/Trier/Alkins will be fun to watch. These are some of the best guards in the Pac-12 and between the 6 of them there are 19 years of college basketball experience, which is very unusual these days.
This is coach Sean Miller’s 9th season at the U of A. He is 120-40 in conference play. He got Arizona into the Pac12 championship game in only his second season and is now making his 6th appearance in the Pac12 title game in 9 years. In those 9 years he has taken the Cats as far as 2 sweet 16’s and 3 elite 8’s. Think about that. In the 9 years under Miller, Arizona has gone to 5 sweet 16’s. If Arizona were to somehow lose coach Miller this offseason, some Wildcat fans would be in for a rude awakening. It would most assuredly be a case of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”.