USC basketball begins its toughest stretch -- and possibly the toughest stretch any team in the country will face during the regular season -- when it takes on Oregon at the Galen Center Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Over three games, USC will face No. 5 Oregon, No. 10 UCLA and No. 9 Arizona with the latter two on the road, which makes Saturday night's game all the more imperative.
The Trojans have never beat a top five team at Galen Center and haven't knocked off a top five team since the 2007-08 season when they beat No. 4 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. That also was the last time USC beat a top 10 team on the road, making this stretch all the more difficult. Coming out with a winning record during the three-game stretch would be huge for USC’s future this season. Not only would it be a big confidence booster, but it would propel the Trojans up the Pac-12 standings where they are currently one game behind UCLA, two games behind Oregon and face a three-game deficit to the conference-leading Wildcats of Arizona. A strong run would also have an effect on Selection Sunday where the Trojans are still likely to hear their name called anywhere from a No. 2 seed to a No. 10 seed depending on how the season finishes.
But before worrying about winning two games or a three-game sweep, the Trojans have to figure out how to beat a Ducks team that whopped them by 23 points in the first matchup.
"They are one of the most athletic teams in the country," forward Bennie Boatwright said. "They get out in transition. They run. They shoot threes. They're a good team, so it's going to be a challenge to play against them."
USC heads into this game with a new air and a new attitude now that it finally has a full roster of healthy players. In Thursday's win over Oregon State, the Trojans used their full roster in a game for the first time.
“It's different for us because we have a different lineup," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "We're working Bennie Boatwright back in the lineup and it'll be a different game with him.”
The addition of Boatwright changes the dynamic of the USC roster.. The Trojans now have a 6-foot-10 playmaker that is a mismatch for opposing forwards that have to come out and guard him on the perimeter. Enfield can now run different offensive sets that take advantage of Boatwright's skills.
“Sometimes when you have a player out for 18 games, like Bennie, it's hard to get them back in the rotation without affecting your team. Bennie is so skilled that he's let the game come to him and he's just been able to come in offensively and just make the right pass,” Enfield said. “Plus, he's shooting the ball and scoring, so when you have a guy who is unselfish and can make the right play, you usually can get him involved quickly.”
“Bennie's skill set makes it easy for our team and the coaches to get him back in the lineup and rotation.”
Against Oregon specifically, the addition of Boatwright enables USC to use a two-forward lineup consistently after it was only able to do so sparingly in the first matchup due in part to foul trouble (Charles Buggs fouled out in seven minutes).
Boatwright's shooting ability should also help open up the middle of the paint for the Trojans since the Ducks like to keep a pair of shot blockers inside to protect the rim. Instead, one of the forwards will have to chase Boatwright out to the three-point line or else he is liable to go off for a career night like he did last year when he had a freshman season-high 23 points and his only career double-double with 12 rebounds
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:
Shot Swatting - Oregon leads the nation with 177 blocked shots, averaging 7.1 per game. USC is not far behind -- seventh in the nation with 144 blocks.
Both teams are long and athletic, but Oregon has a unique feature with two top-ranked shot blockers. Chris Boucher (2.7 blocks) and Jordan Bell (2.1 blocks) both are in the top four of the Pac-12. When both are in the game, it provides a unique obstacle for offensive players. Normally an offensive forward might try to pull a shot blocker away from the basket or try to shot fake and get into their body to keep them from being able to jump up for a swat attempt. You can do that against Boucher/Bell only to have the other half come from the opposite block to send a shot into the front row.
"They're very effective. Bell and Boucher are both elite shot blockers. There's a lot of teams with two bigs, but rarely you see two elite shot blockers on the same team," Enfield said. "You usually have one and the other guy is just okay, but they just happened to both be great at it. We just have to be smart, make the right decisions."
Boatwright said the Trojans have to play under control when they get in the lane. One of the keys is not leaving your feet unless you know exactly what you are preparing to do.
"Play on two feet and find the open man because if we challenge them, they are going to contest it every time."
For USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin, Oregon's length presents an extra challenge. He has to beat the guard and then when he gets into the paint, he has to make adjustments based on if the bigs step up to try to block his shot like Oregon likes to do.
"They're able to sometimes let the guard blow by and force the big to try and block the shot. It forces the guard to make a tough shot over length," McLaughlin said. "[You have to] s hot fake, dump it down to the big or just pull up a little bit shorter than the big and shoot a nice 8-, 10-footer."
Attack of the Threes - Oregon can get hot with a quickness and knock down three, four, five long-distance shots in a row to turn a close game into a comfortable lead for the Ducks. The best example came recently against Arizona when Oregon hit 16 of its first 21 three-point attempts in the midst of a rout.
Oregon does a great job of pushing the tempo in transition and then fanning out to the three-point line for open looks.
"A huge part of their offense is the three-point line," Enfield said. "We have to do our job to challenge the three. We can't give transition baskets and uncontested jumpshots from the three-point line. It will be a long night if we do that."
Picking the Pace - Oregon really slowed down USC's offensive attack in the first meeting by using an extended half-court 1-2-2 trap. The Trojans elected to just toss the ball back and forth at the top until they moved the ball across the midcourt stripe where Oregon then backed off. Instead of being super patient, it would be nice to see USC attack the zone and make the Ducks pay for trying to bring extended pressure. The Trojans have the veteran point guard to be able to do so, but it isn't something they have really done much of in the past.
With the addition of Boatwright, USC's half-court offense is vastly improved now, so attacking isn't crucial, but it would be nice to see them be aggressive rather than letting Oregon establish the tempo of the game.
Home Crowd - After practice on Friday, Enfield talked about how big an impact home court/home field advantage is not only at USC, across the Pac-12 or even in college basketball, but in all sports. He isn't surprised that the Trojans have held a strong home court advantage despite varying ranges of attendance from the Galen Center crowds.
With a top five Oregon team coming in, USC should expect a strong crowd for this one. The game still isn't sold out, but it should be a fun atmosphere and that's what the players are hoping for.
"It should be live in here. It should be," Boatwright said. "Hopefully. Last game, it wasn't. I thought the turnout would be better. I'm kind of disappointed in our crowd. After winning four games, I thought it was going to be packed in the stands. Hopefully, tomorrow the student section will be rocking."
Last Matchup: Oregon won 84-61 on Dec. 30, 2016.
Entering with a perfect 14-0 record, USC was trounced by the Ducks thanks in large part to a 21-3 run to open the second half. Dylan Ennis had 14 of his 20 points during the run while Dillon Brooks was nearly perfect from the field making 9 of 10 field goal attempts to score a game-high 28 points. The Trojans turned the ball over 17 times and didn't have the defensive intensity necessary to beat Oregon at home where it rarely loses.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 7:30 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks (J.B. Long, Matt Muehlebach, Jill Savage).
Radio: ESPN710 AM (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore).
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Payton Pritchard (6-2 freshman)
G - Dylan Ennis (6-2 senior)
G - Tyler Dorsey (6-4 sophomore)
F - Dillon Brooks (6-7 junior)
F - Jordan Bell (6-9 junior)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 junior)
G - De'Anthony Melton (6-4 freshman)
G - Elijah Stewart (6-5 junior)
F - Bennie Boatwright (6-10 sophomore)
F - Chimezie Metu (6-11 sophomore)
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