The USC Trojans, darlings of the Pac-12, come to town tonight, completing a revolution I never thought I’d see. For many years under Mike Montgomery, this was the football school against the basketball school. SC would occasionally cobble a good team together, and Stanford would occasionally do the same. Now football is king at Stanford, and while it may be so at USC, it’s basketball having the far more successful season.
The Trojans are winning, and though their offense is definitely better than their defense, they don’t particularly excel on either end of the court. Their offense is just better than average (5th in offensive efficiency at 107.8) and essentially average on defense (104.7. good for 6th). Where the Trojans make their mark is in pace. Their 15.6 second average possession length is second-fastest in the conference.
Stanford’s defense is similarly rated, at 104.9 points per 100 possessions. So basically we have two mediocre defenses, but one of them is playing against a competent offense and one of them is playing one of the worst offenses in the conference. Sadly for Stanford fans, we know which is which. The Cardinal ORtg sits at 97.9, miles away from the D-1 average of 103.
To quote the late Chick Hearn, Stanford couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean. The Cardinal is the worst three point shooting team in the Pac-12, making only 29.5% from behind the arc. Inside is not much prettier. Stanford shoots 44.5% on two-pointers, 11th in league play. A conference-leading 25% of Stanford’s buckets come from the foul line, where Stanford has done a good job of earning trips and converting this year.
Individually, the Trojan offense is conducted by Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs, who are both enjoying fantastic seasons for Coach Andy Enfield. McLaughlin has an ORtg of 115.7, and both he and Jacobs have assist rates that rank in the top five in the Pac-12. They distribute the ball and help create a highly balanced attack that also features Nikola Jovanovic and Freshman Bennie Boatwright. All four players use less 24% of USC’s possessions.
Stanford is similarly balanced, but it doesn’t lead to nearly the offensive proficiency. The Cardinal has split its possessions even more equitably than the Trojans, but to not nearly the rate of success. It will be interesting to see if Stanford uses its zone defense to slow down the Trojans, who generate 73.6 possessions per game, far beyond Stanford’s pace.
USC is very likely playing for NCAA Tournament seeding at this point. It’s hard to quantify exactly what Stanford is playing for in terms of postseason aspirations. They are all but assured a spot on Pac-12 Tournament Wednesday, and barring a win in that tournament, an NCAA appearance is off the table as well. It’s looking more and more like the Cardinal will be hoping for an opportunity to defend its NIT championship, which isn’t one they really wanted when this season began.
The one consistent trait in this rivalry is that the games are almost always good, regardless of the quality of the teams. Even Stanford’s best teams have faced stiff challenges from USC, and now that the Trojans have the upper hand, expect the Cardinal to relish the role of underdog, especially playing at Maples Pavilion. This wouldn’t be a huge upset, but it would be a huge boost to the Cardinal’s 2015-16 close.