The Trojans’ 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’ dignity.
There’s 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.
“These games are like playoff games,” senior forward Aaron Fuller said. “They determine our future, and we can’t let them slip by.”
Wednesday’s game also provides an opportunity to avenge the Trojans’ humiliating 74-50 loss at Tucson in the two teams’ 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.
“We 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,” Cantu said.
The Trojan offense hit a wall again during Sunday’s 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.
“Ball movement is the biggest thing,” senior point guard Jio Fontan said. “[It’s] getting players to move instead of ball-watch. We all do too much of that.”
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’s looking to return to form against Arizona.
“Any time you’re in conference and you play guys multiple times, people have time to adjust to your personnel and the plays you run,” Cantu said. “I think he’s being guarded in different ways, which has made it more difficult for him to get the same looks. I’d like to see him take more shots from the perimeter.”
The last statement makes sense, as the long-distance attack has been USC’s 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’s 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’s primary ball handler for 33 minutes a game, but the bigger issue has been Fontan’s 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’s no other viable point guard option on the roster, meaning Fontan will get the nod through thick and thin.
“There’s 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,” Cantu said.
That success will be measured Wednesday night, as Fontan and his squad receive another opportunity for a season-defining victory.