During the second half of last Saturday’s win over UCLA, USC coach Andy Enfield saw how the Trojans’ 2-3 zone defense was making life really hard on the Bruins’ offense. So, Thursday night against Arizona, Enfield went back to it from the opening tip.
His players’ execution early in their 80-57 victory, combined with a historically bad shooting night for the Wildcats, made the defensive strategy portion of the evening pretty easy.
“We played 40 minutes of zone,” Enfield said, “which I don’t know if I’ve ever done that before as a coach. It was working, so we stayed with it. Our players were rotating, they were helping and sliding out to the three-point line.”
Arizona made just 27.8% of its shots, the lowest percentage for the Wildcats in Sean Miller’s 10 years in Tucson. They hit just 20% of their three-point attempts. The game was never in doubt for USC, which has won six of eight with one of the losses coming in overtime at Oregon State.
A big reason for the Trojans’ surge, especially against UCLA and Arizona, is the zone, which accentuates USC’s length and athleticism.
Junior center Nick Rakocevic was shocked when he heard the Wildcats made less than 30% of their shots.
“I don’t know if they were off tonight or if it was just a great defensive game,” Rakocevic said. “If we do that, or something close to that, it’s going to be hard to beat us.
“Defense translates. It really helps us offensively because we get a stop or a blocked shot or something and it just gives us a little momentum to go into the offense. That’s been working for us a lot recently.”
With the added bonus of Kevin Porter Jr.’s return from suspension Thursday night, the Trojans can now rotate nine players who are on scholarship. Even during Porter’s suspension, he was able to practice, which allowed USC a string of practices with 10 available players, a rare treat for Enfield during this injury riddled season.
“I think our younger players are now picking up the zone concepts,” Enfield said. “It is nice when you can go five on five. I think that’s helped here in the last couple weeks.”
Saturday night’s opponent, Arizona State, will present a test of just how good USC’s defense has become. The Sun Devils are the top scoring team in the Pac-12 at 79.4 points per game, and their fast pace leads to a high-possession affair.
A win for USC (11-8, 4-2 Pac-12) over Arizona State (14-5 and 5-2) would guarantee the Trojans a top-three spot in the league standings heading into a trip to first-place Washington on Wednesday night.
After back-to-back blowout wins over traditional powers UCLA and Arizona, Enfield is looking for more.
“This is nice, but we haven’t arrived yet,” Enfield said. “I don’t want you to mistake that. We have a long way to go as a team.”
VS. ARIZONA STATE
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 710.
Update: The Sun Devils grabbed the biggest win of the season for the Pac-12 at home over then-No. 1 Kansas. But, in an illustration of how uneven the league’s performance has been this season, Arizona State lost three of its next five, including an unseemly loss to Princeton. The Sun Devils are tied for second in the league standings after Thursday night’s 84-73 win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.