By now it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the USC men’s basketball team has nothing left to play for.
Even before its loss to Oregon State last weekend, the Trojans (16-12, 8-8) were barred from earning a share of the Pac-10 regular-season title when California defeated Arizona State on Saturday.
“We were playing for a tangible goal of some sort,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “Now, we don’t have any of that.”
The team has just two games left on its schedule and will not be competing in the postseason because of university-imposed sanctions. To top it off, the Trojans have lost three consecutive games, including two at home.
But none of this means they can’t ruin things for someone else.
Tonight’s matchup at Arizona State (20-9, 10-6) offers USC more than just an opportunity to snap its current losing streak. Beating the Sun Devils would deny them their own shot at sharing the conference title. Arizona State needs to win its last two games, against both Los Angeles schools, and have California lose its final game to tie the Bears at season’s end.
“Maybe we can mess them up,” said senior guard Dwight Lewis, smiling. “Be bubble bursters or something.”
Lewis’ speculation could become reality if the Trojans play like they did in the team’s last meeting. In the Jan. 2 game at the Galen Center, USC rode a suffocating defensive effort to a 47-37 victory, holding the Sun Devils to just 11 field goals on 24 percent shooting.
The Trojans have had offensive problems of their own, especially in recent weeks. USC’s point totals in its last three games — 47, 44 and 44 — have dropped it to last in the Pac-10 in scoring offense.
O’Neill attributed the team’s struggles in part to fatigue.
“We’ve had a bunch of guys play minutes they’ve never had to do before,” he said. “It’s certainly not an excuse for losing games at home, but at the same time we have not played with the same oomph for the last couple games in terms of offense.”
Fortunately for the Trojans, defense hasn’t been an issue. USC comes into tonight’s game allowing only 56.1 points per game, third best in the nation.
The Trojans look to bring more of the same against Arizona State’s balanced scoring attack. Guard Ty Abbott leads the Sun Devils at 12.3 points per game, while forward Rihards Kuksiks and guard Derek Glasser average in double figures as well.
But USC can’t afford to be one-sided against an Arizona State team that has played well of late. Before falling to California last weekend, the Sun Devils had won four in a row.
“We haven’t shot the ball well at all the last three games,” O’Neill said.
The Trojans hope that changes tonight.
“Play for pride now,” Lewis said. “No one wants to end the season a loser.”