Though it was an 8:00 p.m. start, the USC basketball team showed its stuff in front of a national audience last week in a thorough victory over UCLA, beating the Bruins, 89-75, to snap a six-game losing streak in the Crosstown Showdown. That and their best record since 1991-92 at 15-3 (4-1) earned the Trojans a spot in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 2008. Now they have to fight complacency and expectations as they try to continue to build on a strong season with one of the toughest trips in the Pac-12, heading to Oregon and Oregon State.
First up is a matchup with the Oregon Ducks (14-4, 3-2) on the forest painted court of Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks feature a balanced lineup similar to the Trojans and are looking to push back up the Pac-12 standings after a loss to Colorado. USC is trying to keep pace with Washington, who is a half game in front of the Trojans at 5-1.
After a week off, USC must find their rhythm early in a hostile environment where Oregon has won 87 percent of its games since the arena opened in 2011. The Trojans haven't fared very well against the Ducks on the road or at home recently. In fact, the Trojans haven't beat Oregon since 2009 as the Ducks have claimed the last 10 matchups.
Here's what to watch, where you can see the game, a flashback to the last time these teams played and the projected starting lineups.
What to Watch:
Setting the Tempo - The Ducks want to try to be physical with USC. Will Oregon try to slow the game down with that initiative? The Ducks haven't fared well when the game turns into a shootout. They haven't won a game when their opponent has scored more than 73 points. USC enters averaging 84.6 points per game -- second in the Pac-12 and 12th in the nation. Even in their three losses the Trojans have scored at least 73 points. Oregon is capable of being a run and gun team, as evidenced by their 18-0 edge in fast break points against Colorado, but the second number may be just as telling as the first one since the Ducks have shown they will put an emphasis on getting back in transition defense to stop any quick runouts, which USC has thrived on this year.
Finishing Strong - One of the things USC has struggled with this season is finishing out the game. It has let some leads slip away and despite their four overtime win over Arizona, the Trojans have still yet to prove they have someone that can knock down the big shot to win a game. Winning on the road consistently in the Pac-12 is going to be a challenge until the Trojans can find that end-of-game, go-to guy.
But USC has shown progression throughout the season and particularly the conference schedule. It started with the loss at Washington that saw them blow the 22-point lead in the second half and has continued through their most recent win over UCLA, which saw them answer the Bruins' second half run.
"We just grow from every single game," Katin Reinhardt said. "We grew from games like Washington when we gave it up in the second half. Every single game from then on out we’ve done a better job at closing out the lead when we’re up and taking control of the game. We did that. We didn’t let up in the second half. Every time they made a run, we countered it. We just locked in defensively and knocked shots down."
Game of Rejection - Getting points in the paint is going to be tough for both teams because of the array of shot blockers participating. Both teams rank in the top six in the nation in blocked shots per game with USC at 6.6 and Oregon not far behind at 6.2. The Trojans are fourth in the nation with 118 total blocks this season -- just 15 shy of their total for last season in 14 less games. USC does it as a team with five guys in double figures led by freshman Chimezie Metu's 32 (1.8 per game).
For Oregon, it's all about senior forward Chris Bouchard. He leads the conference with 59 blocks and is second in the nation at 3.3 per game. He's had eight games with four or more blocks, including a school record nine-block effort against Arkansas State earlier this year. And coming off the bench is Long Beach Poly's own, sophomore Jordan Bell, who is approaching the Oregon career blocked shots record already as a sophomore. He set the Ducks' single season record with 94 last season and Bouchard is aiming for that mark now.
Freshman Growth - USC's two-man freshman class of Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright has lived up to the high regards bestowed upon it prior to the season. Both are athletic bigs that give the Trojans a unique dynamic they didn't have last year. Impressively, both have shown significant signs of growth throughout the season.
Know Thy Enemy - The Ducks are a balanced team similar to USC. The Ducks have four starters that average double figures in scoring and their fifth starter, point guard Casey Benson, takes care of the ball to help set them up. Benson leads the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio at 5.8:1, but he isn't a big creator off the dribble the way Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin are for USC. Whereas Jacobs and McLaughlin are first and second in the conference in assists per game, Benson only averages 3.2 per game and barely leads the team in assists with forward Dillon Brooks just three behind him.
Brooks is the key to the Oregon offense. The offense often runs through him because he has the ability to score and be a facilitator. Brooks leads the Ducks averaging 15.8 points per game and has only been held below 10 points on three occasions this season. But he is far from the only scorer. Oregon has had four different players score 20+ points in multiple games this season.
Oregon has five seniors on the roster, but none of them began their careers in Eugene.
Brooks the Bully? - Oregon forward Dillon Brooks is only 6-foot-7, but he is willing to take on any frontcourt challenge. The last two games, he's had the unenviable assignment of guarding two of the conference's top big men -- Utah's Jakob Poeltl and Colorado's Josh Scott. Brooks held Poeltl to seven points and seven rebounds while Scott had more success, compiling a double-double.
Brooks now has to switch up his defensive strategy against USC as he will be tasked with trying to shut down Bennie Boatwright. For Brooks to be successful guarding the Trojans' freshman stretch-4, he feels he has to be physical.
“I’ll try to get physical with him, because he’s a freshman and we’ll see how he reacts to that," Brooks told Oregon's web site. As an overall team, the Ducks want to play more physical after Colorado beat them up on the offensive boards.
Last Matchup: Oregon won 80-75 on Feb. 11, 2015.
USC accidentally channeled Outkast's Andre 3000 and came out 'ice cold,' missing 11 of its first 13 field goal attempts and shot just 33 percent in the first half. That allowed Oregon to build a 35-27 halftime lead. The Trojans battled back but seemed to be answered by Oregon senior guard Joseph Young every time. Young scored 26 points and sealed the game with free throws late after the Trojans cut the lead to 76-73 and missed their chance to tie the score when Kahlil Dukes' 3-pointer clanged off the rim. Julian Jacobs led USC with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 6:00 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks (Rich Cellini, Mike Montgomery)
Radio: ESPN 710, TuneIn Radio (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Casey Benson (6-3 sophomore)
G - Tyler Dorsey (6-4 freshman)
F - Elgin Cook (6-6 senior)
F - Dillon Brooks (6-7 sophomore)
F - Chris Boucher (6-10 senior)
G - Julian Jacobs (6-4 junior)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 sophomore)
G - Katin Reinhardt (6-6 junior)
F - Bennie Boatwright (6-10 freshman)
F - Nikola Jovanovic (6-11 junior)