Throughout this season, USC has been taking steps to prove doubters wrong.
First, it was just collecting wins. The Trojans passed that one quickly, beginning the year with a string of non-conference wins, including a victory over a top 25 Wichita State squad. But the Shockers were missing their best player, so the doubts remained. The Trojans took care of business against the non-marquee names, but there still wasn't much buzz.
A win at Washington State was nice, but then the Trojans blew a 22-point second half lead at Washington. They nearly blew a big lead in their next game and needed four overtimes for a big win over Arizona after going cold down the stretch of regulation.
The question was now whether USC could close out games. The Trojans answered with a resounding win at Pauley Pavilion that earned them their first top 25 ranking since 2008, but a flop of a trip against the Oregon schools quickly took that away. But USC has grown from each loss this season, taking lessons learned from the losses at Washington and in Oregon and applying them in games going forward.
"You sort of gain momentum with every single game.," junior guard Julian Jacobs said. "It's just sort of putting each game behind you. Building off what you did good in the last games and not necessarily fixating on the negatives."
After USC closed out three more games at home where it is still undefeated (14-0), the doubters have shifted to whether USC was good enough to win on the road.
The Trojans get an opportunity to cast those doubts aside this weekend when they travel to the Arizona schools beginning with a Friday evening matchup at Arizona State. USC won the first matchup, 75-65, but didn't have its best effort. Only two players scored in double figures and ASU had a shot at a late lead despite shooting 38.2 percent from the field, 28 percent on threes and were just six for 15 on free throws.
With a rowdy crowd expected at Wells Fargo Arena and the Curtain of Distraction sure to have some good acts drawn up, USC is going to have to block out the distractions and play better to come away with another win against the Sun Devils.
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:
Defensive Road Warriors - For the Trojans to prove their doubters wrong, they know it all starts with defense. Against Oregon and Oregon State, that was non-existant. Julian Jacobs outlined what the Trojans have to do to be successful on this road trip: start strong, stick together in a hostile environment and play defense.
"We lost those games primarily because we couldn't guard," Jacobs said. "We emphasize every single day defense, defense, defense because that's what leads to transition and we're one of the best transition teams in the country."
The Trojans have shown they are fully capable of locking down teams. They are second in the conference, allowing opponents to shoot 39.7 percent and lead the Pac-12 in three-point defense with opponents making 30.3 percent.
Recognizable Figures - With the Trojans' best start since the 1992 season, the team has garned attention in the form of a No. 23 ranking in the AP top 25, but the players are also getting noticed.
"At this point, I think people actually know who we are," Jacobs said. "Just walking around campus, people are eager to say good job and stuff like that as opposed to the last two years when we were sort of the laughing stock of the conference. We expect to win and that's really cool."
Missing DC - Arizona State misses a good amount of shots, so it goes hard after those misses and is near the top of the conference in offensive rebounds. Having a strong rebounder to insert off the bench would be advantageous, but USC's best per minute rebounder, Darion Clark, has yet to return to practice after separating his shoulder last Wednesday. Clark said he popped it back into place moments after the separation, but the team has said he will be out two to three weeks.
Basketball shoulder injuries are most commonly re-aggravated during rebounding and loose ball situations, so it may just be some extra precaution since those are two things you know Clark is going to be involved in when he’s on the floor. Clark had 17 rebounds in 31 combined minutes against the Arizona schools at Galen Center. While missing him for the Arizona State game is not ideal, it's Sunday's game against the offensive rebounding crew of Arizona when his absence may really be felt.
Know Thy Enemy - The Pac-12 has been rather unkind to the Sun Devils. After marching through the non-conference schedule with a 10-2 record, including a win over Texas A&M and on the road at Creighton, Arizona State hasn't been able to break free from the bottom of the Pac-12 standings. It has gone 1-8 against teams not named Washington State. The Sun Devils are led by point guard Tra Holder, who is averaging 15.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
Gerry Blakes and Willie Atwood have both averaged double figures this season as well, but the player coming on has been junior Obinna Oleka. He is the only player other than Holder scoring in double figures in conference play. Oleka has averaged 13.5 points in the last eight games and is the Pac-12's best free throw shooter (of eligible players) making 92.7 percent of his attempts in conference. When he is able to get to the line, it's pretty much automatic points, like when Katin Reinhardt gets there for USC (13-for-13 in Pac-12 play).
For the Trojans to win, they just have to knock down open looks, both from deep and from the free throw line. Arizona State has one of the worst field goal percentage defenses in the country, allowing teams to shoot 45 percent from the field and 33.7 percent on threes. The Sun Devils also are No. 286 in the country in fouls committed per game.
Hurley Happy Hour - With the earlier start time of the game (6:00 p.m. locally in Tempe), Arizona State is running a "Hurley Happy Hour" promotion asking Phoenix-area employers to let their Sun Devils out of work early to get the atmosphere ratched up before USC/ASU square off.
While Arizona State has played beyond expectations under a first-year head coach, the "Hurley Happy Hour" name is a bit disingenuous since Hurley has been one of the most unhappy coaches in the country...at least when it comes to referees. Hurley has five technical fouls on the season and was ejected from a game against Arizona earlier this year. To compare, USC head coach Andy Enfield hasn't been assessed a technical foul this season and has only three in his tenure coaching the Trojans.
Last Matchup: USC won 75-65 on Jan. 7, 2016.
USC nearly blew a 17-point second half lead one game after blowing a 22-point second half lead in a loss at Washington. Arizona State had an opportunity to take the lead with just over a minute remaining, but Tra Holder's three-point attempt clanked off the rim and USC got the first of three straight run out baskets to put away the Sun Devils. Holder had a game-high 21 points while Julian Jacobs led USC with 15 points and five assists after being questionable to play because of an ankle injury.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 5:00 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks (Roxy Bernstein, Steve Lavin)
Radio: AM 830, TuneIn Radio (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Tra Holder (6-1 sophomore)
G - Gerry Blakes (6-4 senior)
F - Willie Atwood (6-7 senior)
F - Obinna Oleka (6-7 junior)
F - Eric Jacobsen (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)