On Thursday, the Trojans (21-6, 8-6) finish a brutal stretch of three games against top-six opponents at No. 4 Arizona (25-3, 14-1). The Trojans lost the first two games against Oregon and UCLA by a combined total of 43 points.
“The losses are growing pains,” sophomore Shaqquan Aaron said. “We can watch film and learn from our mistakes and get better.”
His team has struggled mightily from the field recently, but his confidence in the team does not wane. Aaron believes that his team will peak in the postseason. The Trojans, one of the streakiest teams in the Pac-12, have had no hot shooters of late.
Against Oregon and UCLA, the team shot 33 percent from the floor and under 30 percent from 3-point range.
With so many sharpshooters on the roster — Aaron, junior Elijah Stewart, sophomore Bennie Boatwright, junior Jordan McLaughlin and freshman Jonah Mathews — plus sophomore Chimezie Metu down low, it is difficult to imagine that no one has made the big shots in the last two games. Based on their play this season, it appears the team feasts and famines together.
“We got to keep pushing,” freshman Jonah Mathews said on the season nearing an end. “Keep on grinding.”
In their first matchup with Arizona, USC fell behind by 20 points before Stewart got red hot in the second half only for the team to fall short of a comeback. To win at Arizona, more than one of them — perhaps all of the playmakers — will have to ditch their woes and start making shots. That will be easier said than done, though, against one of the stingiest defenses in basketball. The Wildcats allow a paltry 63.5 points per game.
Since losing to Oregon on the road in early February, the Wildcats have won four straight games, but three were by single digits. Seldom do they lose at the McKale Center. Dating back to last season, they have won 20 consecutive contests at home and seven straight versus the Trojans.
“We’re 10-3 on the road this year,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “That’s pretty good. Last year the top four [Pac-12] teams went 94-6 at home. We were one of those teams.”
Although the Wildcats rank eighth in the Pac-12 in points per game, they have five players averaging double-digits plus a sixth at 9.5 points per game. Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen remains the centerpiece of head coach Sean Miller’s strategy. The seven-footer causes mismatches for every opponent that he is matched up against.
A contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year, Markkanen averages 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. He shoots 45.7 percent from three and 83.9 percent from the free throw line. At the Galen Center, he dropped 23 points, picked up eight rebounds and made five 3-point shots in Arizona’s 73-66 win.
The Trojans will look to shut down Markkanen while battling against the Wildcats’ rigorous defense to chip out their place in the Pac-12 before the conference tournament begins.