With both the Trojans and Bruins being 1-1 in the Pac-10, this is a critical game for both teams as they both seek to compile a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid come March. Both teams are also coming off a home split with the Washington schools, so the winner of Sunday's game will stay right on Washington's tail while the loser will have some making up to do even though it's very early in the conference season.
The Trojans have won the last three games against the Bruins, including a season sweep last year. Included in that sweep was a crushing defeat the Bruins suffered to the Trojans at Pauley Pavilion. The second game was much more competitive and the game this Sunday shapes up to be something like the second game last year. Much of the outcome will depend on how the Bruins answer the focus/intensity question, especially on the defensive end of the floor. At least with the regard to the Trojans, the Bruins will know exactly what they will face.
USC's head coach, Kevin O'Neill, may be the best defensive coach in the conference (if it isn't UCLA coach Ben Howland), and he has the Trojans playing well and cohesively on the defensive end. In fact, if the Bruins brought the kind of effort that USC brings to the defensive table then the Bruins would have probably swept last weekend's games and not have lost to either Montana or VCU. The effort is key because, quite frankly, the Bruins are deeper and more talented than the Trojans, at least on paper. However, the Trojans present the Bruins with some match-up issues that no other Pac-10 team will be able to replicate, namely in the frontcourt.
Typically this season if the Bruins have a match-up advantage against an opponent it has been in the frontcourt. The Trojans present the Bruins with arguably their toughest frontcourt match-up of the year and USC's two post players, senior Alex Stepheson (6'10" 250 lbs.) and junior Nikola Vucevic (6'10" 240 lbs.), are arguably more accomplished than their UCLA counterparts Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith.
Smith will individually be the key to the game. If he can dominate the way he did at Kansas then the Bruins should win. Stepheson, who is USC's do-everything, lunch-pail player, is one of five Trojans averaging double figures (10 PPG) and is second on the squad in rebounds (8.7RPG ) and blocked shots (17 for the year). Stepheson is a warrior on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass but is rather limited on the offensive end. He is only a threat inside of about six feet and is fairly primitive in his post moves. To top that off he is a very poor free throw shooter (49%). When Smith has been on the floor the Bruins have been able to basically limit opponents' inside offense. Both Wazzu's DeAngelo Casto and UDub's Matthew Bryan-Amaning weren't able to be as effective down low against the Bruins when Smith was in the game as opposed to when he wasn't. Both Casto and Bryan-Amaning are more gifted offensive players than Stepheson. If Smith can play 25-30 minutes, which seems more dictated by foul trouble rather than stamina at this point, then the Bruins should have a clear match-up advantage. If Smith can't, then Stepheson can clearly overpower both Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover. Smith really is the key.
Vucevic is arguably USC's best player. He leads the team in scoring at 15.9 PPG, rebounding at 10 RPG and in blocks with 22 on the season. While Stepheson has only 4 assists to go with 28 turnovers this year, Vucevic has 28 assists to go with the same number of turnovers. He is an adequate three-point threat (shooting 33% on the year from outside the arc) and is good with his defense both against his own player and in help. In last season's two contests with the Bruins, Vucevic simply annihilated whomever was guarding him and whomever he was guarding. He is the kind of player that has given Reeves Nelson fits in his career, a player who is long and strong. This match-up should be taken as a personal challenge by Nelson at both ends of the floor. Honestly, if Nelson can't play with energy from the opening tip and for the majority of the game, then the proverbial light may never go on for the Bruin sophomore. He at least must make Vucevic work hard at both ends with the idea that Vucevic can get into foul trouble.
Depth very well could be an issue here, at least with regard to USC. After his two starters, O'Neill literally has no one else to play in the post. O'Neill only goes 6 or 7 deep to begin with and the two players who typically come off the bench are diminutive senior point guard Donte Smith (5'11" 180 lbs.) and freshman wing Bryce Jones (6'5" 200 lbs.). If the Bruins can get either Stepheson or Vucevic in early foul trouble then the Bruins should be able to dominate inside.
The back court presents a challenging match-up for the Bruins. Many area hoop fans point to the fact that USC lost earlier this year to both Rider (bad) and Fordham (a lot worse), both of which are not the level of Montana. However, it is important to realize that the Trojans lost these games before junior transfer Jio Fontan (6' 175 lbs.) became eligible. He has started all five games since his return and if Vucevic is USC's best player than Fontan is the most important. He is the engine that makes USC go and in the five games since his return the Trojans are 3-2 but the two loses are by two at Kansas and in overtime against Washington. Fontan is the second-leading scorer on the squad at 14.4 PPG and he is the best three-point threat USC has on the roster (he's 8-16 in five games). Fontan's importance is much bigger than his stats, though. He is the stability that was necessary to get USC through this season with a modicum of success. He is a natural leader and perhaps most importantly his presence allows USC to play intense, high-ball pressure on defense. Lazeric Jones and his splinted finger and Jerime Anderson will have their hands full initiating the offense with Fontan guarding them.
The other guard is freshman Maurice Jones (5'7" 155 lbs.). He is pretty similar in style and athleticism to Washington's Isaiah Thomas and the Bruins did a pretty good job on Thomas last weekend. Jones is much like Thomas was early in his career, shooting many shots that essentially take his team out of any rhythm. He is averaging 10.3 PPG but he has taken 153 shots on the year and is only shooting 24% from the floor and less than 25% from behind the arc. He is very quick, though, and that has been a bugaboo for the Bruins consistently in the past. Jones is a pretty good defender, having quick feet and hands.
With the Trojans starting guards who are 6' and 5'7" and with their chief sub only being 5'11", the Bruins will have a huge size advantage in the backcourt with the 6'2" Laz Jones, 6'3" Anderson, 6'5" Malcolm Lee and 6'4" Tyler Lamb. It will be interesting to see if Howland posts up his guards to take advantage of that kind of match-up.
Tactically the game comes down to three things. The first is when the Bruins have the ball; USC likes to run a high ball pressure man-to-man defense and that could cause the Bruins some headaches. Being strong with the ball will be imperative for the Bruin guards who simply are stronger than their Trojan counterparts but are less quick than them. If the Trojans force the Bruins to initiate their offense from almost the half court circle then the Bruins may be in for a long night. Don't be surprised if O'Neill throws some zones at the Bruins if for nothing else than to get the Bruins to think about what they need to execute, and the Bruins have done a poor job against teams that switch defenses. The Bruins also must limit their turnovers. USC is athletic enough to turn those into quick points and the Bruins have done an inconsistent job at getting back in transition this season.
The second key to the game will be when USC has the ball. The Trojans want to get the ball inside, whether by passing into one of the bigs or by driving into the lane. The Bruins must do a more consistent job of helping in the paint and rotating down if they want to slow the Trojans down. USC should use more dribble penetration than did Washington and the Bruins must be ready for it. This is where the intensity and focus must be there for the Bruins from the opening tip.
The final tactical piece is pretty simple; the Bruins can't allow the Trojans to dominate the boards. The Trojans average 3 RPG more than their opponents. It will be a good way to gauge Nelson and the Bruins to see how he in particular and the team in general hit the boards. If he is active right away then the Bruins should be in decent shape.
There are some other questions that this game will raise that will be almost impossible to answer. Will Jones be effective with the injured finger on his shooting hand? Will Anderson, whose games against USC last season (especially the second) encapsulated how poor his season really was, be up for this game and raise his own play to help his team win? Will Smith stay out of foul trouble? Howland said this week that Smith will no longer hedge screens but "plug," which is intended to help keep him out of foul trouble and on the court.
USC has as many questions as do the Bruins, and USC's depth should be a major concern to O'Neill. If the officiating is as inconsistent as it's been so far this season in the Pac-10 then there's little way of knowing if either team will be in foul trouble, and this could be the story of the game.
This may be a homer pick but those that think the Bruins should be worried about a blowout are probably way off. The one thing this team has not done this season (other than Montana) is quit.
This should be a pretty close game and I do feel strongly that foul trouble is going to be a major issue. Expect this game to be a grind-it-out affair. In his pre-season prediction, Tracy Pierson predicted a loss. Let's see if the Bruins can end his perfect record…