Go Northwest Young Man

With the regular season winding to a close, the USC Trojan men's basketball team heads up to the Pacific Northwest for a dog and cat fight against the Washington schools. First, they will visit Washington on Thursday evening, looking for a season sweep of the Huskies, for the first time in five years, and no worse than a three seed for the Pac-10 Tournament.

Beginning the season, it was supposed to be the Huskies battling for position among the top teams in the conference. Instead, Washington kicked off their conference schedule with a seven-point loss to the Trojans, lost six out of their first seven Pac-10 games, and have fallen even further behind the conference leaders with their current four-game losing streak. One of the 2006-'07 season's biggest surprises is the Huskies fighting for the number seven seed heading into the conference tournament.

Washington State, on the other hand, is the conference's surprise team in the other direction. Picked to finish last in the Pac-10 in a preseason poll, Washington State is ranked 13th in the nation and has the inside track for the number two seed in the conference tournament.

With what has become one of the strongest and most loaded conferences in the country, even the seventh-place Huskies will provide the Trojans with a nice test before heading into post-season play. In fact, playing the Washington schools back-to-back might be the best slate the Trojans could have drawn for their final two games of this particular season.

Against the Huskies, the Trojans' front court will get a serious test. Washington is led by freshman center Spencer Hawes, who leads the Huskies with 15.4 points per game. The seven-footer has come on strong as the season progresses and is coming off a 17 point, seven rebound game against Oregon.

Hawes is joined in the front court by Jon Brockman and fellow freshman Quincy Pondexter. Brockman is second on the team, averaging 13.8 points per game and leads the Huskies with 9.5 rebounds per game. Pondexter is averaging just over ten points and four rebounds per game.

The backcourt is helped out by guards Justin Dentmon and Ryan Appleby, who both average around ten points per game. Appleby is the team's big 3-point threat and scored all 18 of his points via the three ball the last time the Trojans met the Huskies.

Neither Dentmon nor Appleby should be able to break down the Trojan defense with the dribble, so much of USC's defensive attention will be paid to Hawes. The last time out, Hawes was the Huskies biggest threat, pouring in 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting and his only three-pointer of the season sent the game into double overtime.

Despite the offensive production, USC's freshman center Taj Gibson did a very good job against Hawes, finishing with 22 points and ten rebounds despite missing huge portions of the game due to food poisoning.

With the Huskies' big bodies up front, Gibson and the Trojans' frontcourt must have a presence on the boards, both offensively and defensively.

Offensively for the Trojans, their triple-threat combination of Nick Young, Lodrick Stewart, and Gabe Pruitt should be able to score against the Washington guards as well as drive to the basket and put the Huskies' big men in foul trouble. Four Washington players, including Brockman and Pondexter, fouled out of the game the last time out against the Trojans.

Even though they are in seventh place in the Pac-10, this Washington team is no joke. There is a reason they came into the season ranked sixteenth in the country. It's not a must-win game by any stretch of the imagination, but if the Trojans are serious about making a post-season run, winning games like this at Washington serve as very good practice. A win over a team with a solid interior presence like Washington has in Hawes should let the Trojans know that they can go up against taller teams in the NCAA Tournament.

On Saturday, the Trojans will square off with Washington State and I can bet you that when the season started, nobody thought the season finale between the Cougars and the Trojans could be for second place in the conference.

After taking on the Huskies, the Cougars will provide a much different opponent for the Trojans. Washington State is led by its guards, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, the only two players on the Cougars' roster who average more than ten points per game (Low with 13.9 and Weaver with 11.1). Weaver also leads the team with 5.4 rebounds per game.

The Cougars are an extremely disciplined team and simply refuse to let their opponent speed the game up. Just once in the Cougars previous 28 games has a team scored over 80 points (the Cougars scored 84 points against Radford). The Trojans definitely have the talent to match up with Washington State. It's going to come down to whether USC can make the most out of every offensive possession and hit their free throws.

While the Huskies should test the Trojans interior, the guards of Washington State will provide a stiff test for the Trojan guards. The Cougars came away with a three-point victory in the teams' first meeting. At the time, it seemed like a stumble for the Trojans, but now it's obvious that it was an early indication that this USC basketball team can play with some of the best teams in the country.

If the Trojans come away with a Washington sweep, they should enter the Pac-10 tournament safely inside the top 20 teams in the country and with some serious momentum come tournament time.

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