To begin, a brief public service announcement: The 2010-2011 USC men’s basketball team is not very good. You might have noticed this, particularly if you ventured to the corner of Jefferson and Figueroa Saturday night.
USC has lost six of its last nine games. In the current calendar year, it has yet to win back-to-back games. And presently, it ranks eighth in a conference, which has an RPI rating just a notch above that of Conference USA.
In short, it’s tough to mention USC and the NCAA Tournament in the same breath without uttering the word “out.”
Despite early postseason aspirations, it has become increasingly difficult to envision a scenario in which the Trojans secure a berth in the Big Dance without winning next month’s Pac-10 tournament. And doing so won’t be easy.
If Saturday’s 61-51 loss at the hands of Oregon provided any lessons to the cardinal-clad fans in attendance, it served as a stark reminder of how inefficient USC has become, namely on offense.
Through the first 20 minutes of the contest, the Trojans amassed a mere 19 points, shooting a combined 25 percent while simultaneously setting offensive basketball back 25 years.
“I don’t drink coffee, but I might as well start now,” remarked an NBA scout sitting near press row.
To put it plainly: There wasn’t much production from USC. Outside of junior forward Nikola Vucevc’s 22 points, the next highest figure came from freshman guard Maurice Jones and senior guard Donte Smith, who each finished with nine. Collectively, they shot 36 percent from the field, in addition to an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5:4. Impressive, huh?
“We’re not going to win many games scoring 50,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “That’s all I can say about that.”
Safe to say, USC’s offensive problems have become glaringly obvious in recent weeks. Too many missed 3-point attempts from a group that faces sagging 2-3 zone defenses night after night. Too many possessions in which swinging the ball on the perimeter takes the better part of the 35-second shot clock. Too many missed layups from players who are said to have “NBA potential.”
When the Trojans nearly upset then-No. 3 Kansas in mid-December, when they looked like a team that could possibly finish in the upper-echelon of the Pac-10, they saw multiple players scoring in double figures. They appeared capable of putting points on the scoreboard at least somewhat consistently.
Nowadays, they just seem gassed. Of USC’s 12 losses this season, seven have come on Saturdays, typically two days removed from a Thursday night Pac-10 game. As has been well-documented, USC utilizes a seven-man rotation, and now it seems the lack of depth has caught up with O’Neill’s bunch.
The second-year headman, however, has nonetheless resisted the urge to cite the team’s shortage of bodies as an excuse for the recent downward trend.
“To me, fatigue shouldn’t be a factor,” O’Neill said. “I’d like to make that excuse. But to me, there’s no excuse to be made. If you don’t get the job done, you don’t get the job done.”
But where O’Neill wishes to point his finger is his prerogative.
Depth is a serious issue, and that has become plainly evident during the team’s most recent slide. Not necessarily just in terms of players playing too many minutes, but in terms of lineup options.
The roster, as currently constructed, doesn’t have any wing players who can score on a consistent basis. Senior forward Marcus Simmons averages 4.8 points per game. Freshman forward Garrett Jackson, who is already playing more minutes than anticipated, averages 4.1 points per game. Neither is, by Pac-10 standards, a consistent scoring threat.
There isn’t a backup center or power forward to alleviate some of the pressure placed on Vucevic or senior center Alex Stepheson. And there really isn’t a pass-first point guard on the roster either.
This isn’t meant as a knock on the current group.
If there were another player or two, maybe they’d be in contention for the Big Dance. Heck, maybe even if freshman guard Bryce Jones were still on the roster, they’d be closing in on 20 wins.
But that’s not the case. This is essentially a seven-man team, and based on what transpired Saturday night, it’s missing quite a few pieces.
Through 25 games, this team’s identity is more than evident: It’s a middle-of-the-road Pac-10 basketball team, if that, and it has a long way to go before it goes dancing in March.
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