Preview: USC at ASU

James Harden was supposed to be the main attraction on Wednesday night, but the current Sun Devil players stole the show with an exhilarating 68-66 win over UCLA. The tug-of-war battle wasn't decided until the final buzzer, but Arizona State (14-12, 6-7) walked away with a thrilling victory. Next on the docket for ASU is a Sunday night matchup against the struggling USC Trojans.

The stage was set for a memorable night on Wednesday: Harden was getting his number retired, the matchup was nationally televised on ESPN2, and college basketball’s wackiest personality (Bill Walton) was calling the game. And the two teams did not disappoint fans – providing them with a hard-fought matchup that featured 16 lead changes. Although ASU has had struggled to close out games this season, the Sun Devils were able to stave off the Bruins in the final minutes.

For a second straight game, ASU dominated their opponent inside. The Sun Devils overpowered the Bruins, grabbing 12 more rebounds and outscoring them 36-22 in the paint. UCLA came into the contest as the Pac-12’s best rebounding team, but ASU was able to neutralize their big men, thanks in large to Savon Goodman. The sophomore forward hit all eight of his shots en route to scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Goodman has been dominant in his last four games, averaging 15.5 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 27-of-36 (75 percent) from the field.

The Sun Devils also got a strong effort from Shaq McKissic, who scored 14 points and played tough defense on UCLA’s perimeter players. Tra Holder continued his impressive play, registering 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds. And Bo Barnes came off the bench and hit for eight points, including a momentum-shifting three-pointer with 4:03 remaining. Collectively, ASU is playing its best basketball of the year, and have won six of their last nine games. If they win on Sunday, the Sun Devils will reach .500 in conference play for the first team this season.

USC (10-16, 2-12) enters the contest in the Pac-12 cellar, having lost 10 of their last 11 games. The Trojans are the youngest team in the conference with no seniors and only three juniors on its roster. The inexperienced USC squad is not a cohesive unit and has struggled all season to find an identity. On defense, they give up nearly 71 points per game, which is third worst in the conference. Offensively, it’s even worse. The Trojans shoot 41.6 percent from the field and 64 percent from the line, which both rank dead last in the Pac-12.

Despite the team’s struggles, USC has a nice collection of individual talent. They are led by sophomore forward Nikola Jovanovic, who averages 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin has been a bright spot in an otherwise forgetful season. The talented freshman averages 12.1 points and team-high 4.5 assists per game. However, McLaughlin has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury and is questionable for Sunday’s matchup. A couple of transfers – guard Katin Reinhardt (UNLV) and forward Darion Clark (UNC-Charlotte) – have made significant contributions in their first year at USC. Julian Jacobs, an athletic guard, gives the Trojans an additional scoring option.

Probable Starters:

G – Tra Holder (6.8 PPG, 3.4 APG) vs. Julian Jacobs (8.3 PPG, 2.7 APG)

G – Gerry Blakes (11.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG) vs. Elijah Stewart (4.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG)

F – Shaq McKissic (11.1 PPG, 1.5 SPG) vs. Katin Reinhardt (12 PPG, 37% 3PT)

F – Savon Goodman (11.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG) vs. Darion Clark (6.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG)

C – Eric Jacobsen (9.2 PPG, 64% FG) vs. Nikola Jovanovic (12.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils are the better team with more talent and experience. ASU is playing its best basketball of the season and continues to improve as the season progresses. The most impressive aspect of the recent surge is the different contributions from multiple players. It seems like a different player is leading the charge from game-to-game. Now that ASU is getting steady production from their big men, there is no glaring weakness in the Sun Devil lineup. Additionally, ASU has taken care of business at home this season (11-3), while USC has failed to win a road game in conference play.

Why USC Can Win: It would be easy for ASU to look past the Trojans, who have struggled mightily in Pac-12 play. However, USC has some athleticism and talent on the perimeter, albeit with inexperienced players. Reinhardt, Jacobs and Elijah Stewart are notoriously streaky, but when they catch fire, watch out. If McLaughlin is healthy enough to play, he should have a slight advantage over Holder, in a matchup of freshmen point guards. Also, don’t be surprised to see the combination of Jovanovic and Clark battle toe-to-toe with ASU’s frontcourt players. They have been two of USC’s steadiest players in this up-and-down season.

Key Stat: ASU’s much-improved offense has sparked the recent turnaround. They are averaging 73.9 points per game in the past nine games (6-3) after averaging 52.8 in first four Pac-12 games (0-4).

X-Factor: ASU’s post players. The duo of Eric Jacobsen and Savon Goodman has controlled the paint in recent games. When they score, rebound and play strong interior defense, the Sun Devils are tough to beat.

Final Score Prediction: ASU 75, USC 65

Game Info:

When: 6:30 p.m. MT

Where: Wells Fargo Arena

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/98.7 FM

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