USC to take on Arizona in Pac-12 quarterfinal

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Freshman forward Onyeka Okongwu was beat out by Arizona’s freshman forward Zeke Nnaji for the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. (James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

The USC men’s basketball team will take on Arizona in Las Vegas Thursday in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal. The Trojans, who earned a first-round bye, will battle the Wildcats after they beat Washington 77-70 Wednesday.

Thursday’s game will be played in a desolate, fan-less T-Mobile Arena. The NCAA announced Wednesday that March Madness will be closed to the public in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the Pac-12 followed suit hours later.

Like all conference tournaments, the Pac-12 Tournament is being played at a neutral site — but that has not normally stopped USC, Arizona and other basketball fans from traveling across the country for the action, until now.

“We were 15-2 at home this year and we were 8-1 in the league,” head coach Andy Enfield said per the Los Angeles Times. “I think if you look around the country, the home court means a huge advantage … There won’t be any advantage for any team. So the schools that usually draw a lot of fans … it will be a big difference.”

Regardless, the matchup between two All-Pac-12 First Team freshmen forwards Onyeka Okongwu for USC and Zeke Nnaji for Arizona will be watched closely, especially as Nnaji was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year over Okongwu Monday.

Nnaji recorded 11 points and nine rebounds against the Huskies Wednesday, but the Wildcats’ efforts were led by freshman guard Josh Green, who dropped 19 points on 50% shooting from the field. The performance helped Arizona set the stage for a rematch with USC after the two teams split the season series 1-1.

“We’re excited to advance and have a chance to play USC,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “They’re a very good team.”

Meanwhile, the Trojans are coming off a wildly competitive win at Galen Center over crosstown rival UCLA capped off by a game-winning 3-pointer from senior guard Jonah Mathews. The Santa Monica native became USC’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals that afternoon as well.

Despite Enfield’s prior struggles in February and postseason play, USC has won at least one game in the past five Pac-12 Tournaments and will look to increase that number against Arizona. USC beat Arizona in last year’s tournament, but the Trojans’ win over the Wildcats was led by forward Bennie Boatwright and guard Derryck Thornton, neither of whom remain on USC’s roster.

The biggest question for USC, as it has been for the regular season, will be regarding its consistency on both ends of the floor. Players like Mathews and redshirt senior guard Daniel Utomi must continue to hit shots when it matters most, and the Trojans will need to improve their abysmal 41.7% free-throw percentage from the win over the Bruins, as there is a good chance the game will be closely contested in the final minutes.

USC will also need to rely on its leading scorer, shot-blocker and rebounder per game in Okongwu if it wants to strengthen its case for a higher seed in March Madness. Okongwu, who is averaging 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, has been USC’s anchor on offense and defense and is expected to play a huge role against the Wildcats on both ends of the floor.

USC will tip off against Arizona Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena. The winner will go on to face the winner of No. 1-seeded Oregon and No. 8 Oregon State in a Friday semifinal matchup at 6 p.m.