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Five Thoughts: USC’s a sleeper, Arizona’s issues, Russ-ficiency?

Mar 4, 2013, 10:30 AM EST

Rick Pitino, Russ Smith

Is Russ-diculous now Russ-ficient?: Louisville’s three-game losing streak earlier this season also happened to coincide with a turning point for rick Pitino and his dynamic off-guard Russ Smith. Smith was benched for the third game of that losing streak, as Pitino was efforting to get Smith to reign-in his shoot-first, think-later mindset. After two games where Smith played much better, the situation seemed to reach a head, as Smith went 3-11 in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Rutgers and then put on a disastrous performance down the stretch of Louisville’s five-overtime loss at Notre Dame.

But over the last five games, Smith has been as efficient as he’s been effective. He’s averaging 18.6 points over that stretch, with an average offensive rating of 128.0 during that stretch, up from 109.4 for the season. In fact, if you take away the Notre Dame game, Smith’s average offensive rating in his last eight games is 134.8.

Perhaps what’s most telling, however, was Saturday. Smith finished with 18 points on 11 shots. With less than a minute left and the score tied, Smith drove and, instead of forcing a tough shot, he found Luke Hancock for a three that eventually game the Cardinals the win. Given Louisville’s struggles in late-game situations, this is an immensely positive sign.

You don’t want to play USC in the Pac-12 tournament: Back in the preseason, the Trojans were thought to be a team that could be a sleeper to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament this season. With most of their injured talent returning this season, and with a slew of solid transfers getting eligible this year, Kevin O’Neill’s team was supposed to win some games.

But O’Neill was fired midway through the season after some abysmal performances. With Bob Cantu in place, USC is finally starting to find their groove. After beating Arizona and Arizona State at home this week, the Trojans are now 9-7 in the Pac-12 and have won six of their last eight games, which also includes an overtime win at Pauley Pavilion.

Could the Trojans be this season’s Colorado?

What’s going on at Arizona?: While USC is streaking, the Wildcats are struggling. They got swept at the LA schools this weekend, getting exposed defensively as the Trojans and the Bruins did just about whatever they wanted offensively.

There’s a larger issue at hand here. Arizona is now two games off the lead in the Pac-12 with just one game left to play. The only time that they have beaten a tournament team in 2013 is when Sabatino Chen’s game-winning three-pointer was incorrectly waived off. The Wildcats will be prime for an upset, as they will likely end up getting overseeded thanks to some strong — and lucky — non-conference wins.

Towson: It’s a shame that Towson won’t be able to participate in the 2013 CAA tournament, because this may actually be a team that has a chance to win the automatic bid. They set the NCAA record for the largest turnaround in history, going from a single win to 18 wins this season.

How good is the new North Carolina?: Since going to a four-guard lineup six games ago, the Tar Heels are 5-1, with their only loss coming by five points at Duke. Spreading the floor has been ideal offensively, as James Michael McAdoo is a matchup problem for opposing centers and Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston have thrived with opposing fours having to cover them. Throw in the improved play of Marcus Paige, who seems like he’s finally gained the confidence to lead this team, and the Heels are scoring a ton of points.

But can they defend with this lineup? Well, it appears so. Over these six games, Roy Williams’ club has given up just 0.956 PPP, and their adjusted defensive efficiency would rank in the top 20 nationally.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.