Every scholarship player on the USC basketball team has NBA aspirations. Some will make it while others will have to go overseas, but professional basketball is in the future of almost all off the scholarship Trojans.
This week is a precursor.
The Trojans got word on Sunday that they were in the NCAA tournament, but by virtue of being one of the last teams to make it, they were being shipped to Dayton to participate in a First Four matchup. After a five-hour flight delay, USC finally made it to Dayton late Monday night. It practiced Tuesday and has to be prepared to play on Wednesday.
If the Trojans (24-9, 10-8) win against Providence, they will catch a flight to Tulsa as soon as possible, either late-late Wednesday night or Thursday morning. A practice day to prepare for SMU will be followed by a Friday afternoon matchup with the Mustangs. A win there nets an off-day of preparation for their next opponent in the Round of 32 and the matchup the following day.
“One day, one game, fly back out. Another game. Yea. It sounds like a road trip,” USC guard Elijah Stewart said. “This is the lifestyle we all want to live. NBA players got to do this. If you want to get to that next level, you've just got to become accustomed to it.”
USC head coach Andy Enfield stepped back from saying the coaching staff is treating this as an NBA road trip. He said that was Stewart’s characterization saying the junior wing is “very creative,” but added that “it sounds good to me.”
The first leg of that trip takes them to Dayton for a Wednesday night (6:10 p.m. PST; TruTV) shot at redemption against a Providence (20-12, 10-8) team that beat the Trojans, 70-69, in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season.
"We had a great college basketball game in Raleigh last year," Enfield said. "One-point game at the buzzer. A lot of lead changes, back and forth the entire game. And we're expecting the same type of atmosphere, same type of game."
"We remember it. It's something that's in the back of our minds," Jordan McLaughlin said of last year's loss.
Will it be redemption or a repeat performance?
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:
Point Guard Battle - Just like last year, this matchup could very well be decided on the last play of the game, meaning taking care of the basketball throughout the contest. Last season, Providence had the veteran point guard in top five draft pick Kris Dunn. Now it is USC junior Jordan McLaughlin that is the more experienced playmaker at the point.
As McLaughlin goes, so do the Trojans. It is of vital importance for USC to find a way to get him in the groove, attacking the basket, slashing through the lane either for floaters and layups or to set up his teammates when he draws defenders and then can kick the ball out to open shooters.
"Jordan McLaughlin is our version of Kris Dunn, just a little smaller," Enfield said. "He's been our leader all year. He's our team captain. He's led us in scoring two out of the first three years. He's been playing terrific basketball."
After having his game disappear for five weeks like it was sapped by the Monstars, McLaughlin came on down the stretch. In the final two weeks, he averaged 16.8 points, 7.8 assists and 3.0 steals. He also became the first Trojan since Harold Miner to win multiple conference Player of the Week honors.
Across from McLaughlin will be Compton native Kyron Cartwright. Cartwright was an important reserve for the Friars last year, but is now running the show. He had 10 points and six assists to just one turnover against USC last season and parlayed that into a strong season this year, earning the Big East Most Improved Player award as well as All-Big East second team honors. His 6.7 assists per game led the conference and like McLaughlin he fell a rebound shy of collecting a triple-double earlier this season.
"I give him a lot of credit," Enfield said of Cartwright. "He's made a big jump. He's a junior now. And really impressed with his development and his improvement."
The winner of this individual matchup very well could be the difference in this game.
NCAA Tournament History - The NCAA tournament hasn't been USC's strength in the past. The Trojans are 12-19 all time with no Final Four appearances in over 60 years. USC has made just 11 tournament appearances in the last 30 years and have just one win -- a 10 versus 7 upset of Boston College in 2009 -- in the past 10 years. This is their first back-to-back appearances since making the tournament three straight years from 2007 to 2009,
Wednesday night the Trojans will face their last two NCAA tournament losses playing Providence, who beat them at the buzzer last season, and in the First Four, where USC lost to Virginia Commonwealth in 2011.
Knockdowns - For USC to make any type of run in the NCAA tournament, it has to be able to knock down outside shots. USC is at its best when it is making jumpers and at its worst when it struggles from deep. The three-pointer is a big part of the Trojans offense under Andy Enfield, but they have not shot the ball well on the road. At home, it makes 39.23 percent of the threes taken, but away from home USC makes just 32.81 percent.
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 44 percent in Trojan defeats.
Against Providence, that means knowing where Jalen Lindsey is and keeping the Friars top shooter from getting going. He is shooting 46.1 percent from three this season -- eight percent better than any of USC's regulars.
Bullock the Bully Vs. Height Advantage - Against a Providence team that features a 5-foot-11 point guard, three 6-foot-7 wings and an undersized 6-foot-8 big in Rodney Bullock, USC has a clear height advantage, but will they be able to take advantage of it?
"They still play the same type of basketball," Elijah Stewart said. "They still have undersized bigs, a good point guard that pushes the ball. They going to play physical. It's going to be a street ball game."
Bullock is the rare player that can be a bully in the paint, but also step back behind the arc to shoot three-pointers. The Trojans should be locked in on him after he had a double-double, grabbing 10 rebounds and scoring 16 points, including the game winner against USC in the NCAA tournament last year. The All-Big East second team forward can be very streaky though. He had a 36-point game in a win over New Hampshire and a month later had a two-point performance in a 26-point loss to Xavier. When Bullock struggles, the Friars generally struggle. Providence was 5-8 when he shot 40 percent or below.
Providence's smaller, but physical bigs are going to challenge USC's talented sophomore frontcourt of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, who lead the team averaging 14.6 points and 14.5 points, respectively, to stay disciplined and battle against the Friars' scrappers. Bullock leads the team with 6.4 rebounds per game, but the Friars were outrebounded by 1.1 rebounds per game -- something USC should try to exploit. That starts with Metu.
Metu has taken giant steps forward in his game from last year and is likely to have several NBA scouts paying attention to what he does under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament. The Pac-12's Most Improved Player has an opportunity to dominate some smaller forwards against Providence and he needs to do exactly that. The Trojans second leading scorer doesn't need to show off his full repertoire of moves, but he needs to get in the lane, use his height and baby hook the Friars to death.
Getting Stew Sizzling - USC has been at its best when its streakiest player, Elijah Stewart, has been firing on all cylinders. Stewart is such a dynamic athlete on the wing that when he is hitting shots and forcing people to guard him tightly on the outside, the offense opens up because he is able to dribble drive and throw down a monster jam that sparks the energy from the team or he's capable of creating for his teammates.
After a lengthy slump that saw him get dropped from the starting lineup, Stewart got going against UCLA in the Trojans' last game, scoring 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting -- his first game with more than 15 points since mid-January. It was also his second game scoring in double figures in the last seven games after he had been one of USC's primary weapons for most of the season.
Stewart seems to have recovered his mojo and his aggressiveness after the Pac-12 tournament performance:
"They said that they need me to be aggressive to win. I'm not trying to lose, so if they want me to go up and get them shots up, I can do that."
Keep a Good Thing Going - There's no use messing with a good thing. The Trojans need to wear the gold uniforms. This season, USC is a perfect 8-0 when wearing the golds and have multiple losses with every uniform color. The team is also 6-0 on Wednesdays.
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 Providence under 70 points (12-0).
Last Matchup: Providence won 70-69 on Thursday, Mar. 17, 2016.
All offseason, USC's players had to look back and what could have been in their mind since they never watched the game tape of their late collapse against the Friars when they led for the majority of the game only to have Rodney Bullock, not stars Kris Dunn or Ben Bentil, beat them in the final seconds of the game on a botched inbounds defense. The Trojans held Dunn and Bentil to 12 for 34 shooting, but being a veteran point guard, Dunn took care of the basketball. Providence only turned the ball over six times while USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs combined for nine of the Trojans' 12 turnovers, of which the Friars scored 16 points off.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: approximately 6:10 p.m. PST, TruTV. (Spero Dedes, Steve Smith, Ros Gold-Onwude)
Radio: AM 710 (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore); Westwood One (Ted Emrich, Austin Croshere)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Kyron Cartwright (5-11 junior)
G - Alpha Diallo (6-7 freshman)
G - Jalen Lindsey (6-7 junior)
F - Emmitt Holt (6-7 junior)
F - Rodney Bullock (6-8 junior)
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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