Hoops Preview - USC

Why wait? Since conference play starts Wednesday, you might as well take on one of the tougher road trips of the year. Intended or not, that's what Washington (8-3) will do when they face USC (8-5) December 29th at the Galen Center in Los Angeles. And if they can come out victorious, they'll set a program record for most consecutive road wins, at five.

The game will not be shown on TV, but USCTrojans.com will be showing a delayed feed. You can hear it via radio on the Washington ISP network, including KJR-950AM.

"You are always excited about it, because this is where the ultimate test begins," UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said this week about the start of Pac-10 play. "Is your team prepared to go into conference play? Well, here it is."

This year's Trojan team won't resemble the one that beat Washington twice last year. Members of this year's team accounted for only 15 of the Trojans' 67 points in their 3-point win over the Huskies in February, and 13 of those points came from Nikola Vucevic.

"It's a whole different team now," Romar said. "The makeup of their team is a big difference from last year to this year. They are much quicker and handle the ball better because they have multiple guards. This year they have several guys that can handle the basketball, so I think they are a more efficient offensive team. Last year on the perimeter you dealt more with length; this year you deal more with quickness."

Instead of players like Dwight Lewis, Mike Gerrity, Marcus Johnson and Leonard Washington, USC now is a little smaller but a lot quicker.

And even more ironic is that USC is a different team from when they even started out at the beginning of 2010. There's one big reason for that - or more specifically, one person - Jio Fontan.

Fontan, who was the Atlantic-10 Freshman of the Year two years ago, had to sit out the first 10 games of this year. But when he did make his debut - against Kansas - he really stood out, and in just two weeks has already been named Pac-10 Player of the Week.

Before Fontan, the Trojans had lost to Rider, Bradley, Nebraska and TCU; once Fontan started, they lost a very close game at Kansas and won at Tennessee.

"I guarantee you play those games right now, those scores change. Let 'em play a team like Rider with Fontan…different story," Romar said. "They may be the most impressive that I've seen so far. They don't do a whole lot of things wrong. They have a front line that is right near a double-double, and with the addition of (Jio) Fontan, they have another good scoring guard. They play really outstanding defense."

One way in which USC is very familiar from last year is that they have length in the front court with Vucevic and Alex Stepheson. Combined, they score 25 points a game, as well as come up with 18 rebounds. Compare that to Washington's big front court of Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye, who are scoring 19 points and 13 rebounds per contest. Romar admitted that the recruitment of N'Diaye should help them go up against bigger front courts like USC, who caused them fits last season.

"Absolutely, to be able to counter…and again, it doesn't matter who you're playing against - you want a player like Aziz on your team," Romar said. "But it's something that we've been missing against teams like that, and it hurt us. The entire time I always felt like we were covering for someone.

"Last year with Matthew and Darnell (Gant), that was the biggest team we could put on the floor. We were significantly smaller when one of those players came out. This year if Aziz or Matthew come out of the game, we are as big as our biggest lineup last year - and it makes a big difference."

The Huskies, who are 1-3 so far this season in non-conference and road games, will once again face a team that - while they match-up better physically with last year - has the kind of team play that has exposed UW's weaknesses.

"They are conservative in how they play," Romar said when describing USC. "They are very well coached. They don't make many mistakes. Those that are supposed to shoot the ball, shoot the ball. They make sure they get back. They just stack up in the paint. It's not easy to run against them. You try to speed them up, they may not take the shot. You have to be careful in how you play them. You can't just go helter-skelter on them. They'll get a lead on them, and then what do you do?"

In many ways, this game is all about strength versus strength: Washington leads the Pac-10 in total offense, while USC is a half-point behind Arizona for the league lead in total defense; UW is No. 2 in overall field goal percentage, while USC is No. 3 in field goal percentage defense; UW is No. 1 in rebounding offense; USC is No. 3 in rebounding defense.

This game could come down to whether or not UW makes their shots and forces USC into speeding up their game to keep up on the scoreboard. If the Huskies can't shoot and score in their half-court game, USC can keep the game close, which will play into their hands.

Something else that could play a big factor for the Huskies is the health of a couple of their key players. Justin Holiday suffered a foot strain with roughly five minutes to go in the Huskies' win over Nevada. "It's weaker, but it's not painful," Romar said of Holiday's foot injury. "He's going to play in the game for sure, but how much and how strong he'll be - that'll be game-time. We'll see."

And sixth man Venoy Overton is dealing with a hyperextended knee, an injury he suffered in practice. The senior guard hasn't been 100 percent healthy at all this year, as he's dealt with a hamstring pull, as well as a bruised tailbone. Romar confirmed that Overton should be ready to go against USC.

"You hyperextend your knee, sometimes you feel the slightest tweak the other way…you just don't feel confident about it," he said. "You have to build your confidence back."

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