USC fought and clawed their way back to beat Providence in the First Four round Wednesday night in Dayton. The Trojans rallied from a 17-point second half deficit by locking in on defense, expending energy to chase around targets and keeping the Friars from having any more open looks after the Big East team had made eight three-pointers in the first half.
Now the question becomes, how much energy is left in the tank for this Trojan team.
They went to the airport after a Monday morning practice, were delayed for five hours and got into Dayton around midnight. After a day of practice and shootaround, USC battled through a game of momentous runs to win. The celebration was brief as the Trojans packed their bags and headed to the airport and took a late-night flight, getting into Tulsa after midnight.
USC head coach Andy Enfield said he got three hours of sleep between the travel and watching film. The coaches went to work while the players rested.
"When you wake up, your mind is racing, and you have a game to prepare for," Enfield said Thursday. "So we got together as a staff this morning, and our players slept in."
Less than 36 hours after arriving in Oklahoma, USC will take the floor against the SMU Mustangs (12:10 p.m. PDT on TruTV), a team it has beaten earlier this year, but one that has also changed its style significantly since the first meeting en route to a 26-2 mark following that loss.
Junior point guard Jordan McLaughlin admitted he was exhausted after Wednesday's game, but he's been best friends with the NormaTec pulse recovery system to help his legs bounce back.
"Technology is crazy for recovery nowadays," McLaughlin said.
How much energy the Trojans produce could be the ultimate deciding factor in a game where they will need to bring the defensive intensity for 40 minutes since SMU's defense is one of the stingiest in the nation.
"I think we'll be all right," USC leading scorer Bennie Boatwright said. "This is what we grew up wanting to do, playing in an NCAA tournament. So I think we'll be motivated enough to play and be ready to go."
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:
Lead the Way, Captain - Jordan McLaughlin has been the heartbeat of the USC basketball program since Andy Enfield took over in 2013. The Etiwanda (Calif.) point guard was Enfield's first high-profile recruit and he has been a team leader basically since the day he stepped on campus.
Providence coach Ed Cooley noted as much after McLaughlin came on strong in the final 11 minutes to finish with 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds: "McLaughlin is a great player. I think that team will go as he goes. He's the guy that steers their entire program.
"Really, really good basketball player. He can beat you in a lot of different ways."
When McLaughlin went into a slump last month, so did USC. He struggled for the first 25 minutes against Providence and so did the Trojans. USC needs its junior captain to step up and produce. At 6-foot-1, McLaughlin faces a tough matchup against the five-tweener lineup of SMU. All five Mustang starters are at least 6-foot-6, which could make it difficult for McLaughlin to get the offense going, if he isn't able to create some space with his smooth dribbling.
In the first matchup, McLaughlin attempted only three field goals and finished with six points, five assists and three turnovers. For the Trojans to advance, their captain needs to lead them.
Unique Lineup - SMU presents a nightmare matchup with all five starters being between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8 -- the all-tweener lineup.
"This has been the most unique team I've ever coached in all my years," SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said Thursday. "Most every single team I've ever been around has been pretty traditional. You got your big guys, you got your point guards and wings, and you kind of go from there.
"This team is so fun because we really don't have positions. I think they're five guards. We just got five guards on the floor, and it allows us to try to get out of the box and not play traditionally and make [opponents] play out of their box. I think that's the biggest thing.
"It has worked well for us. It doesn't always work. Certainly we have some challenges because of the way we are, but we hope that we have more positives because of our difficulty to match than we do the negatives."
The Mustangs have altered their lineup since their tallest player, 6-foot-11 freshman big man Harry Froling and freshman guard Tom Wilson both left the team in Decemeber, announcing their plans to transfer. That all transpired after the initial matchup with USC, making this a different team than the Trojans saw earlier this year. The Mustangs have won 26 of their last 27 games and have been in a great rhythm.
Exploiting the Negatives - What USC must do against this new version of the Mustangs is exploit the negatives of playing a five-tweener lineup. The Trojans must get into the paint and make SMU pay with its height advantage. The Trojans used a three-forward lineup for the first time against Providence. If USC goes to a zone defense, don't be surprised if they try that lineup out once more to try to force SMU to try to defend against height.
The Trojans need to attack the glass in a similar fashion as they did against Providence when they snagged 16 offensive rebounds -- six by Chimezie Metu. The best scenario for the Trojans would be to drive the lane, force help and dump off to the bigs for easy buckets while also drawing fouls. SMU's bench is really short, so getting the starters into foul trouble could have a big impact on the rotations that the Mustangs can use.
But here's the rub...SMU knows that's what teams want to do against their small lineup and they have done a great job of taking it away all year. Despite their height deficiency, the Mustangs are third in the country in rebounding margin, grabbing nine more than their opponents. They are also second in the country in fewest fouls per game, averaging just 14.4 this season.
Slowing Semi - Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye is a dangerous weapon. Averaging 18.6 points per game and 6.8 rebounds, Ojeleye has the ability to go off for 36 points like he a week ago in the AAC conference tournament against East Carolina. But in the first meeting, Bennie Boatwright helped keep him under wraps with Ojeleye scoring 13 points on 5 of 11 shooting. The Trojans forced SMU's best player to turn the ball over three times, something he did only three other times this season.
NCAA Tournament History - The NCAA tournament hasn't been USC's strength in the past. The Trojans are 13-19 all time with no Final Four appearances in over 60 years. USC has made just 11 tournament appearances in the last 30 years and entering this tournament had 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's win in Dayton helped exorcise Trojan demons from their previous two NCAA tournament appearances -- the buzzer-beating loss to Providence last season and a 2011 loss in the First Four, falling to Virginia Commonwealth
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 33.04 percent.
Stopping the Three Ball - One of the things that makes SMU's small lineup so difficult for teams is the Mustangs ability to shoot the outside shot. They are sixth in the nation making 40.6 percent of their three-point attempts with four of their five starters shooting 42.5 percent or better from long distance. USC, on the other hand, has just one significant contributor, Jordan McLaughlin (42.2%) shooting above 38 percent.
The Trojans need to make their shots and keep SMU from getting the wide open looks that have been so plentiful against USC's defense at times this season. The Trojans have struggled to defend 3-pointers at times this year and it has hurt them most in losses. Opponents have shot just 34 percent on three-pointers in USC's wins, but that number shoots up to 44 percent in Trojan defeats.
The Gold is Golden - USC wore its cardinal jerseys in Dayton to improve to 4-4 this season in the red, but they should stick with what worked against the Mustangs in their first matchup and wear the gold uniforms. USC is a perfect 8-0 when wearing gold this season, including the win over SMU.
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 SMU to less than 70 points (12-0). USC is also 19-1 when leading at halftime and 15-1 when it outrebounds the opposition.
Last Matchup: USC won 78-73 on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.
After a mucked up first half, USC opened up the floor and the offense and rolled to a 50-point second half to beat the Mustangs and hand them their second loss of the year. (They've lost just twice since.) USC fell behind by four early in the second half, but De'Anthony Melton keyed a 14-0 run scoring nine of his then-career-high 15 points during the stretch. Bennie Boatwright scored 17 points, making four 3-pointers, and helped limit SMU leading scorer Semi Ojeleye to 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
Where to Watch:
Game Time, TV channel: approximately 12:10 p.m. PDT, TruTV. (Kevin Harlan, Dan Bonner, Reggie Miller, Dana Jacobson)
Radio: AM 710 (Chris Fisher, Jordan Moore); Westwood One (Craig Way, P.J. Carlesimo)
Projected Starting Lineups:
G - Shake Milton (6-6 sophomore)
G - Jarrey Foster (6-6 sophomore)
G - Sterling Brown (6-6 senior)
F - Semi Ojeleye (6-7 junior)
F - Ben Moore (6-8 senior)
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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