More than halfway into a season filled with ups and downs, USC men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill has stayed true to a certain mantra about playing in the Pac-10.
“It’s a league where anything can happen,” O’Neill said. “No game’s going to be easy for us.”
Oregon State coach Craig Robinson holds a similar view on conference competition.
“We understand that any of the other nine teams can beat us at any point in time,” Robinson said.
That’s why you can expect neither team to enter tonight’s game at Oregon State unprepared. The Trojans (12-7, 4-3) are fresh off a blowout victory against Washington at the Galen Center — where they posted a season-high 87 points — and currently sit tied for second in the Pac-10. Meanwhile, Oregon State (8-11, 2-5) has fallen to the bottom of the conference standings after dropping its last three contests.
But since the beginning of the season, O’Neill has reminded his players not to underestimate any squad — even one as seemingly vulnerable as the Beavers — and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Especially when you’re on the road, anything can happen to anybody,” O’Neill said. “Oregon State’s had some good wins. They’re a challenging team for us.”
Those wins include recent victories against Oregon and Arizona. And just last Saturday, the Beavers nearly upset Pac-10 front-runner California, the same team that handed USC a 67-59 defeat earlier in the month.
O’Neill hopes the Trojans will bring the same kind of concentration to Oregon State that they showed against Washington.
“If you take the last three games — 120 minutes — we had 10 bad minutes of defense,” he said. “That was against Washington State and cost us the lead.”
Unlike the Washington schools, the Beavers don’t boast a high-powered attack, guard Calvin Haynes leads the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game, and USC will look to its perimeter defenders, especially senior guard Dwight Lewis and redshirt senior forward Marcus Johnson, to make sure it stays that way.
Johnson, who is averaging 16 points per game in his last three, is playing particularly well of late.
“He’s had a real high energy level on both ends of the court,” O’Neill said of Johnson. “He’s taking the ball to the basket. I couldn’t be happier with the way he’s playing.”
Taking a cue from Johnson’s recent heroics — a jaw-dropping alley-oop dunk against Washington being the most memorable — the Trojans plan on running early and often. O’Neill noted that redshirt senior guard and floor general Mike Gerrity has been more effective leading USC in transition than in set plays.
“Mike Gerrity is a little bit better of a full-court point guard,” O’Neill said. “When teams trap us, he’s good enough with the basketball that it creates opportunities. We always look forward to teams pressuring us and getting out and getting after us.”
But as always, O’Neill continued to stress the importance of playing hard on both sides of the ball.
“The key for us is not having any letdowns of any extended period of time because we just can’t recover from those,” he said. “We know that if we don’t play well, we won’t have a chance.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.