Arizona hosts USC, seeks to extend winning streak and give Sean Miller a milestone victory

Gary Randazzo

Arizona is on a high after becoming the first Pac-12 team this season to sweep a conference road trip. The Wildcats (15-6, 5-3 Pac-12) have won two straight and four of their last five games to reposition themselves back atop the Pac-12 standings. Joining Arizona there is a USC Trojans team that must be seething after getting blown out by Colorado on their home court last weekend.

USC (17-5, 6-3 Pac-12) is one of five league teams with three losses in conference, making Thursday night’s tip in Tucson a pivotal game for both schools as we enter the second half of the regular season.

As a backdrop, Arizona’s Sean Miller is seeking his 400 career win. Miller’s career record is 399-142 as a head coach.

The Wildcats expect the full return of Chase Jeter. The redshirt senior has been battling lower back injuries this season. His return should add depth to a vastly improved Arizona frontline. Stone Gettings, who is coming off his best weekend as a Wildcat, is still expected to start despite Jeter’s return. Gettings scored 13 points in a 75-72 win at Washington, and then produced his first double-double in an Arizona uniform with a season high 19 points and 12 rebounds against Washington State. Fellow frontcourt players Zeke Nnaji, Ira Lee, and Christian Koloko serve to provide Arizona with arguably the most formidable frontline in conference.

USC, which has won two straight against the Wildcats, including the elimination of Arizona from last year’s Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, has always been somewhat of a thorn in Arizona’s side. Although Arizona leads the all-time series in Tucson with a 40-10 winning advantage, USC leads in games played at their place, 32-23. Hence, protecting home court tonight in Tucson is a must.

The Trojans will be able to match Arizona’s athleticism, but not Arizona’s depth. Hence, a key to victory tonight is pushing tempo and trying to bait the Trojans into a fast-paced game. Although USC also likes to push and play fast, doing so in the always rowdy McKale Center could backfire, especially if the Trojans are taking shots outside the usual flow of their offense.

The bigger keys for Arizona remain defense and rebounding. Fans should expect to see Arizona’s defense played at a high level. If the Wildcats are finishing off defensive possessions with rebounds, then the final result will not be close. However, if the athletic Trojans are hassling the Wildcats and making things a mess on the boards, things can certainly get interesting.

Big picture, it feels like Arizona is turning a corner and perhaps following in the footsteps of the more successful Miller-coached teams where team chemistry begins to gel at the right time in the season. If true, and it definitely feels like this team of young players and new faces is truly starting to click, then the next two months of basketball should be very entertaining.

Tonight will tell us a lot. If the Wildcats remain in the present and focus exclusively on the Trojans, it’s difficult to imagine USC pulling off the road upset.