When the USC Trojans take the court on Thursday night to play their first NCAA tournament game since the 2011 First Four matchup with eventual Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth, they will be an underdog despite being the higher seed. The Trojans (23-12) are the No. 8 seed in the East Region, taking on No. 9 seed Providence College (23-10), who feature one of the top guards in the country and one of the most versatile young big men as well.
The Friars had a similar season trajectory to the Trojans, starting out red hot before coming down to Earth during the conference schedule and going through a rough stretch near the end of the year. The difference is that Providence pulled out of their funk to win four in a row before a top five Villanova team sent them home from the Big East tournament. USC played well in the Pac-12 tournament, exploiting UCLA's indifference toward defense for the third time and playing a talented Utah team tough despite the Utes shooting better than 60 percent.
The winner of Thursday night's (approximate starting time of 6:50 p.m. PDT) faces a likely matchup against regional No. 1 seed North Carolina on Saturday. With the subregional being played in Raleigh, North Carolina, neither USC nor Providence is going to be picked to win that one.
Providence features a fairly young roster with potential top five draft pick Kris Dunn and Junior Lomomba being the only two juniors in the regular rotation. Their other top four players are all members of a talented sophomore class. Forward Ben Bentil leads that group. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward has been a matchup nightmare this season due to his ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot the outside shot or battle and bang down low in the paint. Other than point guards Dunn and Compton, Calif. native Kyron Cartwright, Providence is a taller team, particularly on the wings where Lomomba is 6-foot-5 and Jalen Lindsey is 6-foot-7.
The Friars did not shoot the ball well as a team this season and can often be impatient on the offensive end. They finished No. 290 in the country in three-point shooting and struggled to rebound the ball, which are two things that should give the Trojans a great opportunity to win since teams strong in those two areas have give USC trouble all year.
Top 25: 1-7
Top 50: 2-7
Top 100: 8-7
Vs. 100+: 15-3
Last 10 games: 5-5
Best wins: at Villanova 4, vs Arizona 26, at Butler 56, vs Butler 56, Evansville 93
Worst losses: at DePaul 201, at Marquette 111, Marquette 111
How They Got Here
The Providence College Friars earned an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament on the strength of a 23-10 record, including a 10-8 mark in Big East play. The Friars opened the season 14-1 before closing out the year 9-9. They had lost five of six before closing the regular season with three wins and winning their opener in the Big East tournament. Villanova eliminated them a day later. Providence finished the season with an RPI of 40 to earn the No. 9 seed in the East Regional.
Coach: Ed Cooley, 102-66 (fifth season)
Players (10 mpg or more):
Ben Bentil (SO, 6-9, 235 F) – 21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.1 apg, 1.1 bpg, .469/.333/.788 (34.1 mpg)
Kris Dunn (JR, 6-4, 220 F) – 16.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 6.4 apg, 2.5 spg, .442/.340/.689 (33.4 mpg)
Rodney Bullock (SO, 6-8, 225 F) – 11.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.3 bpg, .450/.344/.720 (32.5 mpg)
Jalen Lindsey (SO, 6-7, 220 G) – 7.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg. 0.7 apg, .389/.281/.733 (25.4 mpg)
Kyron Cartwright (SO, 6-0, 185 G) – 5.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.0 apg, .356/.358/.686 (24.1 mpg)
Junior Lomomba (JR, 6-5 205 G) – 5.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, .405/.326/.672 (24.9 mpg)
Ryan Fazekas (FR, 6-8 205 F) – 5.3 ppg. 2.5 rpg, 0.3 apg, .364/.343/.737 (19.4 mpg)
Drew Edwards (FR, 6-3, 185 G) – 2.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, .316/.278/.607 (10.1 mpg)
Team averages (national rank from sports-reference.com):
.422 FG (264), .481 2-PT. FG (211), .321 3-PT. FG (290), .727 FT (69), 1207 REB (111), 74.0 ppg (155)
.435 FG (176), .492 2-PT. FG (214), .321 3-PT. FG (52), .717 FT (277), 1215 REB (292), 69.7 ppg (124)