LOS ANGELES — The USC men’s basketball team has the chance to add a couple feathers to its cap Thursday against Arizona.
A win would give the Trojans their 15th consecutive victory at home, tying the second-longest home winning streak in program history. And a victory would put USC one away from going undefeated at home in conference play for the first time since 1991-92.
Not bad for a team that lost its season opener at Galen Center to Florida Gulf Coast, a defeat that looks more like a misdirection than the dour foreshadowing it felt like at the time.
But the game against the eighth-ranked Wildcats represents more to USC than a couple of historical footnotes. A victory would likely eliminate all bubble speculation about the Trojans, putting them firmly in the NCAA tournament field.
USC (21-8, 13-5 in Pac-12) and Arizona (24-5, 13-5) are tied for second place in the conference. Win, and the Trojans control their destiny for the No. 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament entering the season finale against Arizona State on Saturday.
That would have been hard to believe entering the season, with USC having such a young roster. But here the Trojans are.
“This is why you came here. This is why you came to USC, to play in these situations. What are you going to do about it?” Trojans head coach Andy Enfield said of his message to the team. “Step up and play your best basketball, compete at the highest level. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you play smart and together for 40 minutes, you have a chance to win every game you play.”
That is easier said than done against a team like Arizona, which jumped out to an early lead on the Trojans in Tucson last month and coasted to an 81-66 win.
USC was all kinds of discombobulated in that game. It could not score consistently at any level of the court, struggling in the paint against the Wildcats’ front court of Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis while shooting 4 for 17 from 3-point range.
And the Trojans’ normally effective defense allowed Arizona to shoot 48.3% from the floor and 50% from 3.
“We just didn’t play well on the road,” Enfield said. “We didn’t move the ball offensively, we missed a lot of open shots, defensively we made some mistakes. We just have to play better.”
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With Arizona and USC one win or one Arizona State loss away from being locked into the second or third seed, it is likely these teams will face each other again in the Pac-12 semifinals next week in Las Vegas.
No time for USC to build confidence for that rematch like the present.
Arizona at USC
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Galen Center
TV/Radio: ESPN/AM 790