Trojans face major test against No. 11 Wildcats
The Trojans‚Äô momentum is swinging on a pendulum. Five days ago, USC was riding high: The squad had won four straight games, emitting whispers of USC interim head coach Bob Cantu as a dark horse Pac-12 coach of the year candidate and the Trojans (12-15, 7-7 Pac-12) as a late runaway from an NCAA tournament bid.
Right now, however, USC is coming off a crushing loss at Cal followed by a 16-point blowout last Sunday to UCLA, who came into the Galen Center and left with the Trojans‚Äô dignity.
There‚Äôs a golden opportunity to quickly put USC back on track, though, and it lies with the visiting No. 11 Arizona Wildcats (23-4, 11-4), whom the Trojans are taking on tonight at 6:30 p.m.
USC is out of the race for the regular-season conference title, but every game is important in terms of gaining a higher seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
‚ÄúThese games are like playoff games,‚ÄĚ senior forward Aaron Fuller said. ‚ÄúThey determine our future, and we can‚Äôt let them slip by.‚ÄĚ
Wednesday‚Äôs game also provides an opportunity to avenge the Trojans‚Äô humiliating 74-50 loss at Tucson in the two teams‚Äô most recent meeting. The final score was not even as close as it seemed, as USC ended the blowout on a 10-0 run to make it a¬† 24 point contest. The Trojans shot just 28 percent in that game, their lowest output all season. This time around, they hope to establish a more up-tempo attack.
‚ÄúWe have to try to get some transition baskets, because if you rely on trying to score in a set defense, (the Wildcats) make it very difficult,‚ÄĚ Cantu said.
The Trojan offense hit a wall again during Sunday‚Äôs 75-59 loss to UCLA. The Trojans fell behind by double digits early and made just four of their first 17 shots. Combine those misses with an efficient and up-tempo attack from the Bruins, and USC was out of the game in the first 10 minutes.
‚ÄúBall movement is the biggest thing,‚ÄĚ senior point guard Jio Fontan said. ‚Äú[It‚Äôs] getting players to move instead of ball-watch. We all do too much of that.‚ÄĚ
Senior forward Eric Wise leads USC with 11.9 points per game, but has been shooting just 32 percent from the floor in the five games since USC defeated UCLA in Westwood on Jan. 30. His production has stagnated, and Wise looked a little bit shaken up after he missed two free throws that could have cut the deficit to nine points late in the second UCLA game. He‚Äôs looking to return to form against Arizona.
‚ÄúAny time you‚Äôre in conference and you play guys multiple times, people have time to adjust to your personnel and the plays you run,‚ÄĚ Cantu said. ‚ÄúI think he‚Äôs being guarded in different ways, which has made it more difficult for him to get the same looks. I‚Äôd like to see him take more shots from the perimeter.‚ÄĚ
The last statement makes sense, as the long-distance attack has been USC‚Äôs friend during conference play. Sophomore guard Byron Wesley leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage in conference play, while junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell leads the way with 2.5 3-point makes per game. The Trojans as a team are second in the conference in 3-point percentage, shooting 37 percent from long distance.
Also a lowlight of the UCLA game was the performance of Fontan. He finished with six assists, but USC‚Äôs senior leader shot just two of 11 from the floor and fouled out with USC down 14 with 1:31 left, the game all but finished.
Turnovers naturally come with being USC‚Äôs primary ball handler for 33 minutes a game, but the bigger issue has been Fontan‚Äôs shooting woes. He takes more contested looks than anyone else on the team and is shooting a woeful 33.2 percent as a result. But there‚Äôs no other viable point guard option on the roster, meaning Fontan will get the nod through thick and thin.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs going to be nights where a player is not making shots, but his leadership and his ability to run the offense is very, very important to the success of the team,‚ÄĚ Cantu said.
That success will be measured Wednesday night, as Fontan and his squad receive another opportunity for a season-defining victory.