"It's tough to beat a team two times, so imagine a third."
USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin comments after beating Washington on Sunday were exactly right except he left one word out: "good." It's tough to beat a "good" team three times, but USC proved that beating a team you've beat up on twice in the season isn't so tough last year when they handed UCLA possibly its most embarrassing defeat since John Wooden became coach in Westwood.
The Trojans will have to prove they can take care of business against the Huskies for the third time on Wednesday night when they matchup in the nightcap of the Pac-12 tournament's opening round. For USC, another matchup with crosstown rival UCLA awaits if they beat Washington, but more importantly, a win over the Huskies is necessary to help the Trojans' NCAA tournament bid.
USC's players and coaches understand what is at stake.
After blowing a double-digit lead late at Arizona State, the Trojans knew their tournament chances no longer had a cushion. Last week, they played games against Washington State and Washington as a two-game season, knowing a loss would knock them out. Against the Cougars, USC took care of business from the opening tip. That wasn't the case against Washington. The Trojans had to rally from a 10-point deficit like they have done so many times this season.
In the third matchup, a strong start would be beneficial USC.
"We've just got to come out with more energy and hopefully knock down some shots," McLaughlin said
If it makes some early shots, USC will probably try to go full throttle for the blowout in order to be able to rest players in the second half. But the Trojans will have plenty of time to rest if they don't beat Washington, so securing the victory by whatever means necessary is the priority objective.
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:
Captain Playing Big - USC junior point guard Jordan McLaughlin disappeared for five weeks. After being the leading scorer and primary catalyst for most of the season, McLaughlin's play fell into a pit in the middle of the Pac-12 schedule. Over a six-game stretch, McLaughlin averaging just 8.0 points per game while shooting a woeful 21.4 percent on his two-point shots after he had been shooting 51.4 percent on those shots leading into the slump. His assist-to-turnover ratio dipped from about 2.3-to-1 to around 1.7-to-1.
There was no explicit reason for McLaughlin struggles. He did complain about a back injury at Arizona when his slump was starting to end, but he said it flared up after some tough, physical practices that week. McLaughlin shot a little bit better in that Arizona game and had his shooting stroke back on point when the Trojans returned to the Galen Center last week.
It's easier to get back on track against teams like Washington and Washington State that are bad defensive teams, but what has been encouraging is McLaughlin's aggressive attacking style the last week. He looked like he could go by any Cougar or Husky defender any time he wanted. He was able to get into the paint and to the rim regularly. Not only did he get himself going, but he also set up his teammates for open looks and USC started shooting better from outside.
McLaughlin scored 19.0 points per game while shooting 61 percent in the two wins last weekend. He averaged 9.5 assists, 6.5 rebound and 3.0 steals to help him become the first Trojan since Harold Miner to win multiple conference Player of the Week honors.
No Fultzing Around - Markelle Fultz is projected to be a top three pick in the NBA draft, which might have played into him being unavailable to play this week. The 6-foot-4 guard has missed five of the last seven games with a balky knee and Washington has already announced that he will not be available to try to help the Huskies snap their 12-game losing streak. Why risk your future on a conference championship run that is highly unlikely.
Pac-12 Tournament History - The Pac-12 tournament hasn't been too kind to USC. The Trojans are 15-16 all time with only one tournament title in the 17 years it has been held. The 2009 tournament title also marks the last all-tournament selection the Trojans have had. That year DeMar DeRozan was named tournament MVP while Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett made the end-of-tournament team selection. Since then, USC has just three victories in seven years and has yet to get beyond the quarterfinals.
Running the Gauntlet - To add to the DeRozan-led 2009 championship, USC will possibly have to run the ridiculous Pac-12 gauntlet of top seven opponents. Their possible path includes the quarterfinal matchup against No. 3 UCLA, a semifinal battle with No. 7 Arizona and then a championship shot at No. 5 Oregon. It would be an improbable and impressive run.
Knockdowns - For USC to make any type of run in the Pac-12 tournament, it has to be able to knock down outside shots. The drive and kick as well as the transition three-pointer are huge parts of Andy Enfield's offensive system. But when USC has left the confines of the Galen Center, it has not shot as well. At home, it makes 39.23 percent of the threes taken, but away from home USC makes just 32.97 percent. The Trojans need to get to T-Mobile and find a home away from home.
Stopping the Three Ball - While USC's offense knocking down threes will be important, it may not be as vital as stopping opponents' outside opportunities. The Trojans have struggled to guard the three-point line at times this year and it has been a consistent killer in losses. Opponents shoot just 33 percent in USC's wins, but that number shoots up to 45 percent in Trojan defeats.
Dominate the Paint - Even though Washington forward Noah Dickerson had a career-high 27 points in Sunday's matchup, USC dominated down low, out-scoring the Huskies, 44-22. The Trojan guards were able to dribble through the defense at will and put up a lot of shots at the rim. There's no reason they can't do the same, allowing Chimezie Metu to potentially add to the 17 points on 7 of 11 shooting he had on Sunday.
Mr. Most Improved - Every game the rest of the season could be just one more opportunity for Chimezie Metu to interview for NBA personnel should he choose to enter the NBA draft in the offseason. Metu's giant leaps and bounds from last year have shown him displaying a number of different tools that have caught the eyes of the pro scouts. It also earned him the Pac-12's Most Improved Player award on Monday.
Is Metu ready to play in the league right now? Probably not, but if he chooses to throw his name into the mix, he'll have suitors because of his immense potential. He has been the Trojans stalwart in the middle of the paint on both ends of the court. He's has six double-doubles this season and is averaging 14.3 points and 7.7 rebounds while blocking 1.5 shots per game. He has also helped the Trojans to a 126-59 advantage in dunks this season.
Tourney Chances - Some believe a Pac-12 win gets the Trojans in the NCAA tournament. Others think it might take two wins. As of right now, USC is being listed from a No. 8 seed to not making the tournament at all. The most common seeding is between a No. 9 seed where CBS' Jerry Palm has the Trojans playing the faux-USC, South Carolina, in Salt Lake City and a No. 11 or No. 12 seed and having to travel to Dayton for a First Four play-in game.
The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) that the NCAA uses likes the Trojans (No. 39) more than some other measures. ESPN's Power Index has USC at No. 58 and their strength of schedule is currently No. 43. The Gamecocks showed last year that a great record will only go so far. South Carolina's soft non-conference and only having one elite win cost them a tournament bid when they lost in the SEC tournament opener to a non-NCAA tournament team.
There is no doubt that USC will fade into NCAA tournament oblivion in the same fashion, if they lose to Washington, making Wednesday's game a must win.
Play the Numbers - Since they are in Vegas, the Trojans might as well play the numbers. Wear the gold uniforms. This season, USC is a perfect 7-0 when wearing the golds and have multiple losses with every uniform color. The team is also 5-0 on Wednesdays and 1-0 in March.
For in-game "luck," the Trojans just need to have five players score in double figures (7-0), score more than 90 points (5-0) or hold Washington under 70 points (11-0).
Last Matchup: USC won 74-58 on Sunday, Mar. 4.
How much of a difference will five days make? That's the question. The Trojans won the last five minutes of each half and that was good enough to push them to a 16-point lead over the hapless Huskies, who were again without freshman star Markelle Fultz. USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin scored 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting and dished out nine assists on his way to being named the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the second time this season. The Trojans did have their hands full with Washington forward Noah Dickerson, who scored a career-high 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: 8:30 p.m. PST, Pac-12 Networks. (Ted Robinson, Bill Walton, Lewis Johnson)
Radio: AM 710 (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore).
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - David Crisp (6-0 sophomore)
G - Carlos Johnson (6-3 freshman)
G - Matisse Thybulle (6-5 sophomore)
F - Noah Dickerson (6-8 sophomore)
F - Sam TImmins (6-11 freshman)
G - Jordan McLaughlin (6-1 junior)
G - De'Anthony Melton (6-4 freshman)
G - Shaqquan Aaron (6-7 sophomore)
F - Bennie Boatwright (6-10 sophomore)
F - Chimezie Metu (6-11 sophomore)
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