As the waning days of January give way to the feverish conference battles of February, the great teams and those that will be fortunate enough to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament begin to separate themselves from those on the outside looking in.
The USC men’s basketball team hopes to be part of the latter group, and its first chance to make its case for greatness will be against Herb Sendek’s Arizona State Sun Devils for the first test of their season-long three-game road trip.
The team has struggled lately after wins over Texas and Tennessee.
“We were happy to get a few big wins under our belt,” said freshman guard Maurice Jones. “We felt we were kind of good and we just stopped playing the way we should have.”
Of the Trojans’ nine losses this season, seven have been decided by six points or less.
The team’s rally Saturday night against California came up short, when junior guard Jio Fontan’s final three-point attempt at the buzzer missed the mark in the 60-58 home defeat (their fourth loss decided on the final possession of the game).
Questions continue to arise as to whether this group of players can consistently play fundamental basketball for 40 whole minutes.
If ever there were a time to begin to piece together a response to what looks to be a season-long deficiency, it’s against ASU, who comes into Thursday night’s 6 p.m. matchup in Tempe, Ariz. with just two wins in their last eight games.
“We haven’t played our best basketball, but we pretty much need to get it together and go down there and try to win two,” Fontan told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s important for us to definitely try to get two.”
For USC (11-9, 3-4) to get the first of two in the desert, defense will once again have to be the focus for USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s squad, as the team is 10-1 this season when holding the opposing team under 40 percent shooting from the field.
Although the Sun Devils (9-11, 1-6) have been underwhelming for the majority of the 2010-2011 season, the team boasts two of the better perimeter shooters in the Pac-10.
Senior guard Ty Abbott averages 13.9 points per game and 41 percent from three-point range and senior forward Rihards Kuksisks averages 9.5 points per game and 39 percent from three-point range.
Perimeter defense has been an issue during USC losses this season, as opposing teams are averaging almost seven hits from three-point range (62 three-point baskets surrendered in nine losses).
Since Arizona State boasts the No. 9 scoring offense in the Pac-10 at 63.5 points per game, stopping veterans like Abbott and Kuksisks from the outside will help USC to steal a Pac-10 road game — something they have yet to do in 2011.
Despite these concerns heading into their three-game road swing, the Trojans insist they’ll be able to solve their ongoing problems.