With six of nine players suiting up in cardinal and gold for the first time, the USC men’s basketball team looked to identify its strengths and weaknesses during the season opener Friday night at the Galen Center.
Offensively, in the 66-59 win over Cal State Northridge, the USC guards struggled against the Matadors’ zone defense. Trojan guards converted just six of 29 shot attempts, including zero shots from behind the 3-point line, and committed a combined 11 turnovers.
The Trojans (1-0) did manage to work the ball into the post, however, scoring 30 of 66 points in the paint. In his USC debut, redshirt sophomore forward Dewayne Dedmon scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while junior forward Aaron Fuller recorded 16 points and nine rebounds.
After 40 minutes of action, however, USC basketball coach Kevin O’Neill could not define his team’s offensive identity.
“I still do not know,” O’Neill said. “For the third year in a row, we have a new group, and this is the newest group that we have had.”
Defensively, the Trojans held the Matadors (0-1) to a 13.8 shooting percentage in the first half, establishing a new USC opponent record for the lowest shooting percentage in a half. For the game, USC made 42.6 percent of its shots, compared to just 25 percent for CSUN. The Trojans, however, struggled with foul trouble. Four of the five USC starters were called for three or more fouls.
“We did a relatively good job defensively for most of the game,” O’Neill said. “Our guys think this is a kung-fu match. That is not toughness. That is not smart basketball.”
The Matadors struggled on the offensive end to begin the game, making only 1 of 19 field goal attempts. The Trojans took advantage, jumping out to a 14-4 lead to start the game behind eight points from Dedmon.
Dedmon, however, picked up his second foul with 8:02 left in the opening half and remained on the bench until halftime. The Matadors managed to cut the lead to four points, but Fuller scored seven of his nine first-half points with Dedmon sidelined to send the Trojans into the locker room leading 29-21.
USC extended the lead to the nine points in the second half, but with Dedmon limited after picking up his third foul and suffering a cramp in his right leg, the Matadors battled back to tie the score at 42, and eventually take their first lead of the game at 52-50.
Sophomore guard Maurice Jones, who only shot 2-of-13 from the field in the game, got to the free throw line down the stretch, making nine of 11 free throws in the second half. He finished with 16 points and three assists.
“We were rudderless until [Jones] took over in the last four minutes and went into attack mode,” O’Neill said.
Jones, the captain of the squad and who has played the most minutes at USC despite only being a sophomore, scored seven of the Trojans’ final 14 points to clinch the victory.
“[CSUN] did a good job keeping their composure, but we also did a good job keeping ours,” O’Neill said.
With two 7-footers, junior center James Blasczyk and Dedmon, in addition to the 6-foot-6 Fuller, the Trojans enjoyed a significant height advantage. USC had 11 more rebounds than CSUN, and six more blocked shots, led by Dedmon, who recorded three.
“Coach wants the ball in the post so that we can make a play or find the open guy,” Fuller said.
Freshman guards Alexis Moore and Byron Wesley made their collegiate debuts. Moore struggled with his shot, finishing 1-of-9 from the field, including 0-of-7 from the 3-point line, and ended the night with six points. Wesley had five points and eight rebounds.
Senior walk-on guard Eric Strangis, starting for the first time, scored USC’s first two points of the season on a jump shot 36 seconds into the game. The basket was his first career points as a Trojan after appearing in six games and recording seven total minutes last season.
The Trojans are back in action tonight at home against Nebraska at 7:30 p.m.
In the last matchup of the two teams, in November of last year, USC held a 20-point lead in the first half before falling 60-58 in Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers (1-0) return four starters from the team that went 19-13 last season. The only active Trojans that competed in the game against Nebraska last season are sophomore forward Garret Jackson, Jones and Strangis.
“Right now we are nowhere near where we need to be to play the kind of schedule that we are playing,” O’Neill said. “But we are going to get better and improve.”