You've seen this picture before. Newly ranked USC team goes on the road and doesn't play up to its potential.
For the second time this season, USC got slotted back in the top 25 rankings right before venturing out on the road and promptly gives away that ranking by getting swept. This time it was the Arizona schools that did the sweeping as No. 23 USC went to the desert and lost a pair of games, including falling Sunday evening, 86-78, in Tucson to No. 17 Arizona.
USC again came out flat. The Trojans allowed Arizona to get to the basket at will, scoring in the paint repeatedly with 22 points in the paint in the first half, including 12 of its first 18 being scored in the lane. The Trojans fell behind by as many as 19 points, but tried to rally with a strong second half. It proved to be too little, too late as they trimmed the lead down to two points, but went cold in the final six and a half minutes, making just two of their last 13 field goal attempts, including a stretch of nine consecutive misses.
USC had five players in double figures led by Bennie Boatwright's game-high 18 points. Jordan McLaughlin scored 15 while Elijah Stewart, Julian Jacobs and Katin Reinhardt had 12, 11 and 10, respectively.
Gabe York led Arizona with 17 points. Allonzo Trier and Ryan Anderson both scored 14 points in a redemption game for both -- Trier because he broke his hand in the four overtime loss to USC earlier this year and Anderson because he had his worst performance of the year with only five points in that loss.
Here's three takeaways from USC's loss to the Wildcats on Sunday evening:
Picking Up Intensity Too Late
Part of the reason USC was able to come back in the second half was its intensity on both ends of the court. After allowing Arizona to score 46 points and shoot 54.1 percent in the first half, the Trojans stopped giving up as many easy looks. They worked harder on both ends of the court and the result manifested. The Wildcats' shooting percentage soon dipped with no player making more than 50 percent of his shots in the second half and the team shooting 43.5 percent in the final 20 minutes. USC also clamped down on offensive rebounds, allowing just two in the second half after Arizona bigs Dusan Ristic and Mark Tollefsen came off the bench to combine for seven in the first half.
Rebounding and defense will keep you in ball games, but to come back from 19 points down, you have to score and the Trojans were able to do that by picking up the tempo. Julian Jacobs got the ball and pushed it up court as much as possible. USC also relied on him and Jordan McLaughlin to break down Arizona's guards off the dribble rather than using as much pick-and-roll action with the forwards. Jacobs and McLaughlin had seven combined assists in the second half after the team had only five in the first half.
That change allowed the guards to drive and kick and the Trojans did a good job of moving the ball to get good open looks, which is why USC made seven of its first 11 three-point attempts in the second half in the process of trimming the lead to two points.
Bennie Boatwright had the worst game of his USC career on Friday against Arizona State. He fouled out without scoring a point and the Trojans were -15 when he was on the court. But Boatwright bounced back in a big way on Sunday, scoring a game-high 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting despite some early foul trouble. Boatwright scored eight points in the first half and even took a blow to the eye early in the second half, but that didn't appear to affect his shooting touch as he knocked down his next two long distance attempts after returning to the game.
Boatwright went cold at the end of the game, making just one of his last five shots, but it was an important game for the freshman forward to show that he could rebound from a slump and have a productive game, especially when facing off against a redshirt senior in Ryan Anderson. Boatwright finished the game as the only USC starter with a positive +/- rating with USC being +5 when he was on the court.
Ranked, Road Games Still Issue
USC fell to 1-5 on the road in the Pac-12 and are 0-4 this season when ranked. In fact, USC has now lost its last nine conference games when being ranked. The Trojans haven't proven they know how to live up to the hype of being a top 25 team and they haven't proven they can win on the road. Luckily, the Trojans have been so good at home that its masked their road troubles to an extent, allowing them to remain just 1.5 games back in the conference race, but if USC wants to make a March run, it will have to be on the road playing in an unfamiliar arena with a crowd unlikely to be rooting for them. For that to happen, USC has to find more consistency. The Trojans have put a near-complete 40 minutes together just once on the road -- a 14-point victory at UCLA, which isn't really "on the road" so much as it is just away from home a bit.
USC has to get back to work in the lab after another disappointing road trip. There are positives to take out of the second half against Arizona, but the real question is when are the Trojans going to provide a 40-minute effort in a road game. They'll need an answer for that down the road, but not this week as Colorado comes to town on Wednesday for a 5 p.m. showdown at the Galen Center. The Buffaloes (19-7, 8-5) have quietly positioned themselves to make a run at the regular season title, sitting just a game out of first place, leapfrogging USC in the process.