USC proved something the last time it played against Washington State. The Trojans showed they could go on the road and win in the Pac-12 this season -- something they had struggled with mightily in the past. Now with Cougars coming to town for a Thursday night matchup at the Galen Center, USC again has a proving ground. This time the Trojans must showcase they can bounce back when they are down. Though there are some veteran elements on this team, it is still one of the youngest in the nation, so this is a new challenge for Andy Enfield's squad.
After getting beat up in Oregon, the Trojans went back to the basics, focusing on defensive principles this week in practice. And they went hard at it. They'll get to apply those re-teachings first against an often offensively challenged Cougars squad that relies heavily on Ike Iroegbu and Josh Hawkinson. Iroegbu is capable of knifing to the basket or driving and kicking while Hawkinson is a monster double-double machine in the paint.
The Trojans got a taste of success with a brief one-week stint in the AP top 25 poll, but now that they've been slapped back off the pedastal, how will they react? USC needs a strong week to keep themselves near the top of the conference standings. The Trojans entered the week tied with five other teams for third, one game back of Washington and Oregon.
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:
Bouncing Back - For the Trojans to get back in the win column, they have to do two simple things. Of course, it's the two simple things that is key in nearly every single game of basketball ever played -- play tough defense and knock down shots.
"We have to play better defense than we did on the road," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "We have to shoot a higher percentage and share the basketball like we have all season. When we’re open we have to make some shots."
While USC may be a high-flying, highlight reel offensive club on the surface, their defense is what has made them a fringe top 25 team this year.
"We have to play defense. When we play defense, we are as good as anybody, but when we don't we're just as bad as whoever," junior guard Julian Jacobs said. "We were watching film today on Washington State. We got a lot of transition plays, but that's because we were in help-side defense. We got steals. We got our hands on the ball. Oregon trip we just could not guard anybody."
Defense is a collective team effort that the Trojans were hard at work on during practice this week while the shooting is an individual feeling comfortable and that should be more likely back at the Galen Center. The Trojans shooting splits between home and road/neutral sites are pretty noticeable. USC is shooting 48.1 percent at home and nearly five percentage points less on the road.
The discrepancy on three-point shooting is even more poignant. The Trojans are knocking down 43.3 percent at home and just 34.7 in road/neutral games. Katin Reinhardt has been particularly affected. His outside shooting has struggled mightily in road/neutral games. He has made just 10 of his 44 three-point attempts (22.7 percent) in those games while he is hitting 50 percent of those shots at home.
"That’s what home court advantage does for you. It’s tough to play on the road. I think it’s like that everywhere, especially in this league," Enfield said. "It’s just a little tougher to play on the road in this league than in some of the others around the country because of the long trips."
Healthy Jordan - USC guard Jordan McLaughlin was fantastic in the win over UCLA despite being sick for a couple of days leading up to it. With a full week off before the Oregon game, it was expected he would be back to 100 percent and be able to come out even stronger. That was anything but the case. McLaughlin had a fever for "seven or eight days" leading up to the trip, according to Enfield, and his play reflected it.
"When you watched him play, he just wasn’t himself with the energy defensively and even offensively," Enfield said.
Normally one of the Trojans' most accurate outside shooters, McLaughlin's shot was way off. He shot multiple airballs and barely clipped the rim twice as well. He was sluggish and lethargic on the wing. He was a step slow on defense, which allowed both Oregon and Oregon State to get into the lane with relative ease, which completely changed the dynamic of the defense.
"When Julian [Jacobs] and Jordan pressure the ball and we get out in transition and on the half court they can penetrate and we can spread the floor, it’s a lot of fun to watch," Enfield said. "Those two are so valuable to our team that when one or both have off nights, we certainly struggle."
The good news is that McLaughlin practiced all week. He was smiling and joking with his teammates in the weight room on Tuesday afternoon and he looks back to 100 percent.
"He’s better now," Enfield said on Tuesday. "He just looks a lot better when you look at his face, the color and just the energy of his body. He looks a lot better. Today, he had a great practice. We’re expecting him to be back to normal."
Junior Leader - Julian Jacobs was not happy with the team's play over the weekend and that starts with him. Jacobs received a technical foul late in the Oregon game when USC was still barely hanging on to comeback hope and then in the Oregon State game, he got the ball ripped away from him at halfcourt while he was trying to argue with the referees. Gary Payton II swiped the ball and led a fast break that ultimately ended with Jacobs picking up his second foul.
"It was a rookie mistake. The coaches let me know about it that I shouldn't even be talking to the refs no matter. He made a pretty good play and as far as the tech[nical foul], I just lost my composure."
Jacobs knows he controls the ball the majority of the time and that he often dictates the Trojans pace, energy and style. That's one of the reasons why he was upset with himself for letting the situation get the best of him. But he and the team have learned from the woeful road trip:
"We're not as good as we thought as far as we sort of had an attitude that we can come in and beat any team and not have to play hard. That's not the case at all. We definitely have to respect the other team, no matter who they are. You have to prepare for every single team. You can't overlook anybody. You learn from it and put it past you. We've closed the door on Oregon."
Know Thy Enemy - Former Oregon head coach Ernie Kent is fighting through a rough season two in Pullman. The Cougars began the year 7-2, but are just 2-8 in their last 10 games and have yet to win a true road game, even against cross-border rival Idaho mere miles away. Kent continues to mix and match lineups, using eight different combinations in 19 games, but hasn't necessarily found the right recipe just yet. The only constant has been the junior roommate combination of Ike Iroegbu on the wing and Josh Hawkinson down low. Iroegbu is the only Cougar to have started all 19 games and is averaging 14.5 points after scoring 27 in Washington State's most recent game.
Mr. Double-Double - Washington State leading scorer and rebounder Josh Hawkinson enters the game averaging a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.9 rebounds. Those numbers come courtesy of his nearly nightly double-double. He is fifth in the nation having recorded 14 double-doubles this season in 18 games. He also posted the rare 20/20 game in an overtime loss to Washington -- the first Pac-12 performance of 20+ points, 20+ rebounds since Cal's Leon Powe did it against USC in 2006.
USC started the year off the right way with an easy victory over the Cougars that showcased the Trojans' explosive playmaking ability. USC scored 54 points in the first half and opened up a 25-point lead. Nikola Jovanovic led the Trojans with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Jordan McLaughlin added 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting as five USC players scored in double figures with another pair of Trojans scoring at least eight points. As a team, the Trojans shot 52.9 percent, including knocking down half of their three-point attempts (8-for-16).
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 7:30 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks (Spero Dedes, Mike Montgomery)
Radio: ESPN 710, TuneIn Radio (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Ny Redding (6-2 sophomore}
G - Ike Iroegbu (6-2 junior)
G - Brett Boese (6-7 senior)
F - Junior Longrus (6-7 senior)
F - Josh Hawkinson (6-10 junior)
G - Julian Jacobs (6-3 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)