After playing some of the mediocre basketball teams in the Pacific 10 Conference--and there are a lot of them--USC's struggling team now goes against the best.
Not only is Arizona far and away the best team in the Pac-10, it is also the top-ranked team in the country.
The apparent mismatch is set tonight at McKale Center in Tucson and is expected to attract the usual sellout crowd of 13,124.
Just how good are the Wildcats, who are 16-1 overall and 6-0 in the conference?
"It's my opinion that Arizona is in the same mold as the old UCLA teams, but without a dominating center like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Bill Walton," USC Coach George Raveling said. "I'm immensely impressed with their unselfishness. They play like they don't have a star."
A case for star quality could be made for forward Sean Elliott, who is averaging 19.2 points a game, and point guard Steve Kerr, who is averaging 11.8 points and shooting 53.8% from three-point range.
While Kerr was redshirting because of a knee injury last season, Arizona finished second in the conference behind UCLA, then was upset in the Pac-10 tournament by Oregon.
Arizona was described as a rudderless ship last year without Kerr at point guard. Now that he is back the team is more confident, with players returning to their usual positions.
The backcourt tandem of the 6-foot 3-inch Kerr and 6-6 Craig McMillan is one of the best in the country. The front line of 6-8 Elliott, 6-9 Anthony Cook and 6-7 Tom Tolbert isn't shabby, either.
Coach Lute Olson also has three proven reserves in 6-7 forward Joe Turner, 5-11 guard Ken Lofton and 6-6 forward Jud Buechler.
Arizona is shooting 53.5% as a team, 72.6% from the free-throw line, and is averaging only 12 turnovers a game.
By contrast, USC (3-11 overall, 1-4 in the Pac-10) is shooting 41.7% from the field, 60.5% from the foul line and is averaging 19.3 turnovers a game.
Raveling says it's remarkable that Kerr, who handles the ball most of the time, is averaging less than one turnover a game.
"Arizona is cut out of the cloth of some old-time teams," Raveling said. "They play the way that the game is meant to be played.
"They're the best passing team in the league, almost to a fault. They pass up good shots for another pass."
Raveling predicts that all five Arizona starters will be selected in the National Basketball Assn. draft.
He also says that Arizona will still be the nation's top-ranked team at the end of the regular season.
The Wildcats surely won't be threatened by any Pac-10 team, such is the state of mediocrity in the conference.
Oregon Coach Don Monson said the conference race could be summed up as "Snow White and the nine dwarfs," referring to Olson, Arizona's white-haired coach.
"Lute Olson is doing an unbelievable job of coaching," Raveling said. "Believe me, it's much harder to coach good players than bad ones."
Nonetheless, other than Elliott and McMillan, the other starters weren't extensively recruited.
Only Gonzaga was interested in Kerr. Tolbert formerly played for UC Irvine and Cerritos College. Cook, who played for Van Nuys High School, wasn't in the blue-chip class, either.
Raveling believes that Olson is already coaching for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament, citing a recent game with Oregon when Arizona elected to play at the Ducks' slow tempo and still won handily.
Arizona is beating Pac-10 teams by an average of 27.1 points.
By Raveling's reckoning, the Wildcats are apparently unbeatable, at least in Pac-10 competition.
"The only way Arizona can be beaten is if it shoots poorly and rebounds poorly and the other team plays one of the best games it has played all season," Raveling said.
For the Trojans, that seems to be an almost insurmountable task.
Tonight's game at 6:30, PST, will be broadcast by KNX radio. USC will play Arizona State (10-5 and 4-2) Saturday afternoon in Tempe, Ariz. . . . "This might be the biggest challenge of my coaching career," USC Coach George Raveling said. "We have to guard against a down syndrome. The biggest job is to coach the players' heads. Sixty percent of all athletic competition is mental and few, if any of us, are trained to deal with the mental aspect. The opponent is never the other team. It's always us. God couldn't change my mind on that."
Raveling is altering his starting lineup again. Chris Munk, who recently came off a six-game academic suspension, is now the starting center. He will be joined up front by Chris Moore and Alan Pollard. Dave Wiltz and Andy Olivarez will start at guard. "Until our guard play improves, we will continue to struggle," Raveling said. Rich Grande, who was recruited as an off guard, and Wiltz have alternated as starters this season. Grande and Wiltz are shooting 35.9% and 32.7%, respectively.
Brad Winslow, who started alongside Grande in the backcourt against UCLA last Thursday, suffered a foot injury in practice and didn't make the trip. He is shooting only 30.6%. Raveling said productivity is down for Grande and forward Bob Erbst in relation to minutes played. Erbst is shooting 41% and averaging 4.9 points. Munk, at 63%, and Moore, 49.6%, boost the overall average. By contrast, four of Arizona's five starters are shooting 50% or better. . . . Arizona has beaten four teams--Syracuse, Michigan, Iowa and Duke--that were rated in the top 10 at the time. Arizona has lost only to New Mexico, 61-59, at Albuquerque.