As the opening days of the 2010-2011 season are upon the USC basketball team (2-0, 0-0), gauging an upcoming opponent can often prove to be an arduous task.
From watching tape, to scouting tendencies and personnel, evaluating foes from obscure conferences on short notice — like tonight’s opponent Rider University (1-1,0-0) from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference — is difficult to say the least.
But on the heels of their impressive 2-0 start — only the second time in the past decade the team has raced out to two straight victories — the Trojans know that the biggest adjustments are made internally rather than externally.
Going into its 7:30 p.m. tussle at the Galen Center against the visiting Broncs, the team is riding high behind true freshman guard Maurice Jones’ early season play including a career-high 29 points against Santa Clara on Monday.
Looking inside, junior forward Nikola Vucevic has picked up rather nicely from his breakout season last year. The team’s lone member of the John Wooden Preseason Top 50 List has posted back-to-back double-double performances (19 points and 14 rebounds against UC Irvine and a career-high 22 points and 11 rebounds against Santa Clara).
Largely overlooked by the team’s newfound offensive firepower through their first 80 minutes is the status of 6-foot-10 senior center Alex Stepheson. The former University of North Carolina transfer received word hours before Monday’s tipoff that he had fractured his hand in USC’s home opener against UC Irvine.
Although Stepheson was able to suit up against Santa Clara, while also managing to play all 40 minutes in a cumbersome black cast, the big man appeared to be hindered offensively by the fracture most of the night, scoring only six points.
Heading into tonight’s nonconference clash, it appears the defensive-savvy center will be ready to go against Tommy Dempsey’s squad from Lawrenceville, N.J.
“We know they are a tough team, and it’s going to be a challenge,” Stepheson said.
Dempsey’s deep MAAC squad comes to town after defeating Lafayette 80-73 Saturday afternoon, thanks in large part to the experienced play off its bench, who outscored the Leopards’ bench 37-7.
Although USC’s point guard Maurice Jones has looked anything but gun shy in his first two collegiate games, Wednesday night will prove to be his first big on-court test.
The Broncs’ leader and most-experienced player is guard Justin Robinson, who comes in averaging 15 points and 5.5 assists per game.
Robinson, a native of London, is surrounded by an adequate supporting cast led by three talented freshmen — Danny Stewart, Tommy Pereira and Anthony Myles.
While second-year USC coach Kevin O’Neill has no intention of overlooking tonight’s opponent, there was no need to rummage through video and preseason scouting reports to find Wednesday’s gaping disparity: size.
On paper, Vucevic and Stepheson look as if they will encounter little trouble on the boards during their first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.
Rider will take to the court tonight, boasting an average team height of 6-foot-4. In addition, the Broncos have only one center traveling with the team, 6-foot-10 sophomore Dera Nd-Ezuma, who through two games has logged a total of seven minutes of action.
But as the Trojans head into this early three-game tournament, the message in the locker room deviates far from underestimating their little known opponents.
“This is a great tournament, big-time,” Stepheson said. “It’s simple: We want to win it.”
Following Wednesday night’s contest, O’Neill and company will head on their first mini-road trip of the season to the site of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
USC will face Bradley on Friday afternoon, followed by a turnaround game against New Mexico State to conclude the tournament on Sunday.