Arkansas' 7-9 conference record was good enough to finish in a tie for third place in the SEC West, a testament to how average that sub-conference was this season.
Statistically, the Trojans and Razorbacks actually match up quite well. Both teams average 71.4 points per game and while USC is allowing 65 points by its opponents, Arkansas gives up just 65.7. The Razorbacks hit 46 percent of their shots from the floor. The Trojans come into the game at 47 percent. Both teams are hitting 70 percent of their free throws. But from beyond the arc, the Trojans' 40 percent success rate dwarfs the Razorbacks' 35 percent. Although, Arkansas has taken nearly 120 more shots from long distance.
Historically, this 5 vs. 12 match-up has been dangerous for the favorite. That will be especially true for the Trojans, who face a Razorback team that should have plenty of motivation and will be ready to play the "disrespected" card during their entire tournament appearance.
Guards - #0 Gary Ervin, #21 Patrick Beverley
While Patrick Beverley is the team's most potent scoring threat, Gary Ervin could be a bigger factor in terms of his team's chances of progressing in the tournament. Point guard play is so important when it comes to the post-season. But beyond that, Ervin is the heartbeat of this team. As he goes, so go the Hogs. At times during the season, Ervin would try to force a pass or give up on the play too quickly and launch his own shot. He can also be turnover-prone, at times. But during the final five-game winning streak that put the Razorbacks in the post season, Ervin played extremely well. He found open shots for his teammates as well as himself, put up four double-digit scorings games and averaged four assists per contest.
On Friday, Gabe Pruitt will draw Ervin as a defensive assignment and that match-up could go a long way in determining the game. Ervin is a great at dribble penetration, and at just 6-0, could present a problem in terms of quickness for Pruitt. But Pruitt's length should give the Trojan an advantage in cutting down passing lanes and making Ervin work hard on every possession. If he's forced to make tough decisions, the Trojans should take advantage.
One of the guys Ervin will be looking for is freshman Patrick Beverley. He leads the team with 13.8 points per game and is hitting nearly 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc. He's been slumping recently, with six consecutive poor shooting performances, and is coming off back-to-back games scoring just eight and five points. But Beverley has the potential to get it going from three-point distance and put up 24 or 25 points in a game. He's just 6-1, so if the Trojans' off guard can keep in his face for the entire game, good shots should be hard to come by. The Razorbacks' starting guards are small, but they account for nearly one-third of Arkansas' points per game.
Forwards - #13 Sonny Weems, #3 Charles Thomas
Charles Thomas is the biggest question mark for both teams heading into Friday's contest. After injuring his left ankle in the first minute of his team's final game, Thomas is listed as day-to-day and a decision as to whether or not he will play probably won't be made until game time. If he does go, and is anywhere near 100 percent healthy, he will provide a huge match-up problem for the Trojans. At 6-8, 235, Thomas can't truly be guarded by any one forward on the USC roster. The Trojans will be forced to shelve anything other than a two-guard lineup or risk being obliterated on the glass. Thomas isn't exactly a scoring machine, averaging just over ten points per game this season. But he did have a string during the early part of the season where he put up 13 double-digit scoring efforts in a span of 17 games. He's also coming off a game against Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament semifinals where he hit six field goals and six free throws and grabbed seven offensive rebounds on his way to an 18-point, 18-rebound performance. If he duplicates those numbers Friday night, the Trojans will be hard-pressed to win. If he doesn't play at all, it'll be the Razorbacks who are in trouble.
Sonny Weems is a more dangerous scoring weapon on the inside for the Razorbacks and he has been on a roll recently. He has four consecutive double-digit scoring games and is shooting nearly 49 percent from the floor this season. At 6-6, 201, he shouldn't be a match-up problem for a guy like Nick Young or one of the other Trojan forwards, but he's long and athletic, and could present a problem on the offensive glass. He is the Razorbacks' second-leading scorer this season, averaging nearly 12 points per game. He is also a more than capable rebounder, hauling in nearly five per contest.
Center - #51 Steven Hill
Steven Hill is a huge presence on the Razorbacks' back line. He's a seven-footer who would like nothing more than to just sit back and swat lay-up after lay-up into the front row. He's not very active offensively, scoring in double figures just six times this season, but he's an extremely smart shooter, hitting over 64 percent of his shots from the floor. Hill isn't particularly impressive on the glass either, averaging fewer than 4.5 rebounds per game. But he has the ability to come up with some 16-rebound games, as he did earlier this season against Alabama. Ultimately though, Hill lives by the blocked shot. He averages nearly three per game and is a big reason why Arkansas averages nearly 6.5 blocked shots per contest. The Trojans have had some trouble with big, physical centers and Steven Hill fits that mold perfectly. The Trojans' Taj Gibson needs to understand that he's going up against an aggressive shot-blocker and adjust his game accordingly. Getting Hill in some early foul trouble would be a huge plus for the Trojans.
Off the Bench
The Razorbacks' bench could play a vital role in this game, especially if Thomas can't go.
Darian Townes (F-C, #5) is the team's fifth leading scorer, at 8.2 a game, and provides them with a real spark off the bench. At 6-10, 255, Townes could see plenty of action against the smaller Trojans. Razorbacks' head coach Stan Heath has commented multiple times about the height mismatch they have with the Trojans, so don't be surprised if he tries to exploit it early and often.
Michael Washington (F-C, #15) is another guy who can give the Trojans fits sizewise. He stands 6-10 and can come in for Hill or match up with a Trojan forward. He hasn't played many minutes this season, but he's coming off a 17-point, 7-rebound outing against Florida, his best performance of the season. Coach Heath has expressed his concerns about Washington defensively, however, so look for the Trojans to try and exploit that when he's in the game.
Stefan Welsh (G, #2) will come off the bench as a guard and when he's in the game, he'll probably be shooting from beyond the arc. More than three-fourths of his 115 shots this season have been from three-point range, which is surprising because he doesn't shoot them all that well. He's hitting just 31 percent from deep, which contributes greatly to his 32 percent overall shooting from the floor.
Overall, this Razorback team is very athletic. They can run the floor and the Trojans probably won't be able to beat them just by going up tempo. But what USC can do is simply out-play them. As long as the Trojans are playing alertly and aggressively on defense, the Razorbacks shouldn't have the offensive strategy or personnel to beat them.
Offensively for the Trojans, it's going to come down to shooting, the same as it always does. The Trojans are a team of shooters, and if the shots aren't falling, it's difficult for them to win. Taj Gibson should have a very solid game in the middle, but it's hard to ask a freshman to take over a game when he's matched up against a taller shot blocking specialist. If Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart are shooting the ball well, this game should belong to USC. If the shots aren't going down, this will be a real fight.
This is the first tournament experience for every player on the Trojans' roster. Hopefully they can get comfortable and stick around a while.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.