The green and yellow-clad fans of Eugene, Ore. are still down in the dumps just days after watching their hometown Ducks lose the BCS National Championship game in heartbreaking fashion to the Auburn Tigers on Monday night .
But just when it looked like Duck fans would have to trudge through another bleak winter in the blistering cold of the Northwest, the university’s proudest alum, Nike founder Phil Knight, once again has come to the rescue with the gift of a new home.
Tonight, when coach Kevin O’Neill and the USC men’s basketball team (10-6, 2-1) make its longest road trip during conference play, they will be greeted to the newest collegiate basketball cathedral money can buy, as Dana Altman’s underwhelming Oregon squad (7-9, 0-4) unveils the 12,000 seat Matthew Knight Arena.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” junior forward Nikola Vucevic said. “I mean they have been talking about this for a while. I’m glad we will be the first ones to play in it, but I just hope we get the win.”
Outside of the frenzied atmosphere that will likely come with the opening of the best gymnasium Nike could buy, the already road-tested Trojans will face a Pac-10 foe that employs more than just a high-definition scoreboard and NBA-like amenities.
Altman and Co. are avid proponents of the 1-1-3 and 2-3 zone — a strategy that worked favorably for Rider and Washington this season as they looked to stop USC’s low-post duo of senior forward Alex Stepheson (10.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and Vucevic (16.1 and 9.6).
O’Neill has remained an ardent supporter of his own team’s recent ability to make stops at the defense end, however, since the Trojans have held teams to under 34 percent shooting in their last eight games — a pattern he hopes will continue Thursday night regardless of the boisterous crowd expected to fill the Knight Arena.
“The bottom line is we aren’t playing the crowd, we are playing the team out there,” O’Neill said. “We know it’s going to be a tough game and a great crowd, but we just have to go out there and play as best we can and try to get a win.”
In the Trojans’ 63-52 win against their crosstown rival, UCLA, at the Galen Center on Sunday, it was Stepheson’s effort on the offensive and defensive glass that proved to be the difference, personally recording a career-high 16 rebounds and playing without a cast on his right hand for the first time all season.
The Trojans’ senior forward will have little time to be starstruck by the grand opening of the Ducks’ new home, as he will be tasked with the challenge of stopping Oregon’s undersized senior power forward Joevan Catron.
The fifth-year senior leads the Ducks in points (15.9 per game) and rebounds (6.4 per game), while also providing the type of leadership and experience Altman and his staff have struggled to find during his first season at the helm in Eugene.
While not showing his entire hand heading into their Pac-10 road opener, O’Neill suggested that to counter Catron’s craftiness and strength around the basket, he might even utilize the Trojans’ most prized weapon and defensive stopper, senior guard Marcus Simmons.
“I am not against putting [him] on their best inside guy and then just going from there,” O’Neill said.
Thursday night’s 8 p.m. tilt also marks the beginning of a stretch in which USC will play the role of the unwanted visitor in five of their next seven games.