Through 27 games, trying to guess which USC men’s basketball team will show up to the arena has become an exercise in futility.
Will it be the team that took the court last weekend and easily dispatched both Bay Area schools on the road for the first time since 1992?
Or will it be the team that squandered a season full of promise by dropping six of nine Pac-10 contests between Jan. 13 and Feb. 12?
In a season where instability has reigned supreme, if the Trojans (15-12, 7-7) can hang their hat on one positive pattern, it’s their ability to raise their level of play when the stakes are the highest.
Whether it was their two-point loss at then-No. 3 Kansas, their nail-biting upset of then-No. 18 Tennessee in Knoxville or their 73-56 drubbing Dec. 5 of a Texas team that is currently in the top five in the country, the Trojans have thrived under the brightest lights this season.
Tonight they will once again be thrust into the spotlight, when the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats (23-4, 12-2) come to the Galen Center.
Led by sophomore forward and former USC recruit Derrick Williams, second-year coach Sean Miller’s squad currently sits atop the Pac-10 conference standings heading into its second matchup with the Trojans at 7:30 p.m.
Williams is the likely front-runner to win this year’s Pac-10 player of the year award, pacing the Wildcats’ rise to national recognition with 19.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and an NCAA-high 9.27 free throw attempts per game.
On Saturday, the La Mirada, Calif. native secured Arizona’s last-second 87-86 victory over Washington not with his offense, but with a remarkable, game-saving block that quickly made the rounds on highlight shows everywhere.
Williams might be garnering most of the attention on the offensive side, but Arizona’s balanced scoring attack is aided by sophomore guard and former USC recruit Lamont Jones (9.7 PPG and 2.6 APG) and junior guard Kyle Fogg (8.4 PPG and 2.9 APG).
For USC, a recent lineup change by coach Kevin O’Neill added a noticeable spark to what had become a stagnant and predictable offense.
Jones, who started the team’s previous 25 games, seemed to hit a proverbial wall in his freshman season, averaging just 7.8 points and 4.4 assists per game in USC’s five games leading up to its Bay Area trip.
Coming off the bench for Smith, Jones scored 22 points with five three-point baskets in USC’s 78-75 victory over Cal on Thursday.
He then proved his one-game performance was not a fluke by scoring 10 points in the team’s 69-53 rout of Stanford on Saturday night.
But if the Trojans are to knock off the Wildcats in their second-to-last game at the Galen Center this season, junior Nikola Vucevic (17.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game) will have to match the offensive intensity of his esteemed counterpart in Williams.
In USC’s three previous games against ranked teams this year, Vucevic has averaged only 13.6 points and six rebounds per game.
The Trojans conclude the home portion of their season Saturday afternoon against the Arizona State Sun Devils (10-16, 2-12).
Prior to the 4:30 p.m. contest, there will be a Senior Night Ceremony for guards Donte Smith and Marcus Simmons and forward Alex Stepheson.