The last time the USC men’s basketball team faced California, in the Pac-12 opener for both teams, it served as a competitive, back-and-forth contest that nearly went into overtime.
The Trojans outscored the hosting Golden Bears by eight points in the second half, nearly pulling off the upset win before guard Allen Crabbe sank three free throws in the waning seconds to seal their fate. The Trojans lost 53-49.
But much has changed — at least for USC — since late December.
Gone are redshirt sophomore forward Dewayne Dedmon and redshirt junior forward Aaron Fuller, who have been sidelined for the remainder of the season because of a torn medial collateral ligament and a torn labrum, respectively.
That has left USC (6-18, 1-10) with a shortened eight-man rotation, including two walk-ons, as it prepares to host Cal (18-6, 8-3) for the second time this season on Thursday at the Galen Center.
“I went through every roster in the league,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “Take out all their juniors and seniors, take out four of their five starters, we’d have the best team. That’s our plate. Nobody wants to hear or admit. It’s just the way it is.”
O’Neill and company have known their latest predicament for a couple of weeks now.
Fuller has been out of the lineup since mid-January. Dedmon was injured on Jan. 26 against Colorado. And senior guard Jio Fontan, who is among five USC players sidelined for the remainder of the season, hasn’t suited up all year.
“It’s how it is,” O’Neill said following the team’s practice on Tuesday. “Hopefully guys take advantage of this opportunity.”
One of those players happens to be sophomore forward Garrett Jackson, who has averaged 15.3 points per game since Dedmon went down with an injury last month.
But it hasn’t exactly been easy for Jackson. The six-foot-six Oregon native has been forced to play power forward and center because of the Trojans’ glaring lack of height, often defending players at least two or three inches taller and several pounds heavier.
“It’s just something that comes with the territory,” Jackson said. “With our numbers down, there is nothing else we can really do. We have to make do with what we have.”
Junior center James Blasczyk, who is listed at seven-foot-one, remains the only player taller than Jackson. But because of a stress injury in his right foot sustained earlier this season, he has been unable to practice and has been limited during games.
With a smaller lineup, USC’s offensive attack has slightly adjusted and has become more predicated on 3-point shooting and perimeter play. Last weekend against Washington and Washington State, the Trojans hoisted a combined 41 attempts from beyond the arc over the course of two games.
Despite their efforts, they converted 10 of those attempts — 24 percent. This season, they’re shooting 28 percent from 3-point range.
“We had great shots,” O’Neill said. “If you’re open, shoot the ball. It’s not like we have an inside presence right now. So what we’re trying to do is spread the floor, dribble, drive and shoot shots.”
There has, however, been a small glimpse of hope in junior guard Greg Allen. Allen, who transferred to USC from Navarro College, has shown promise in recent weeks, going 3-for-4 and 5-for-11 from beyond the arc against Utah and Washington State, respectively.
But against Washington, he made one of 10.
“All my shots feel like they’re going to go in,” Allen said. “It’s just a matter of me keeping my follow-through up and watching the ball go in. Sometimes I get fatigued and start shooting the ball differently. That’s when it doesn’t go in. I just have to be more consistent.”
The Trojans will need that consistency against the Golden Bears, who are currently second overall in the Pac-12 standings, just one game behind Washington.
But Cal has struggled away from Haas Pavilion this season, holding just a 2-4 mark on the road.
“We’re at home,” O’Neill said. “Hopefully we play better at home.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The game will not be televised but will be broadcasted live on USCTrojans.com.