After finishing the regular season with a dismal 11-20 record, including a 2-16 mark in Pac-12 play, USC’s men’s basketball team heads to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament this week. Head coach Andy Enfield would have to lead the Trojans to the tournament title to have any shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but chances are slim considering the Trojans would have to face top-seeded Arizona in the semifinals, if they beat Colorado and Cal to make it there. Daily Trojan sports columnists Nick Selbe, Will Laws, Darian Nourian, Jacob Freedman and Nick Burton discussed the team’s first-round matchup against Colorado and its chances going forward.
Q: USC faces Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. The first time these teams met this season, the Buffaloes took topped the Trojans by 21 points. When USC hosted Colorado a month later, the Buffaloes won again, this time by a nine-point margin. What do the Trojans have to do differently to win this game?
Selbe: USC must do a better job of slowing down Colorado’s guards. Top guard Askia Booker had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists, pacing the Buffaloes’ offensive attack [in the most recent matchup]. USC was without senior point guard Pe’Shon Howard, who was out with a suspension. That left Enfield with limited options at the guard position, which cost the Trojans on the defensive end. With Howard back for the Pac-12 Tournament, USC’s defense should be improved.
Laws: In the first contest, even though Colorado had just lost star guard Spencer Dinwiddie for the season, the Buffs still routed USC by 21 points. In both games, USC gave up 83 points. The Trojans will have to be more disciplined on defense — but they’ve had that problem all season long, so it’s hard to see that changing now.
Nourian: The Trojans have to play really well and not just for a stretch during the game, but for the whole 40 minutes, which they have struggled to do all season. Colorado, however, is just a better all-around team than the Trojans, as five Buffaloes scored in double figures in their last meeting, so it’s going to be tough to stop them, especially former Mater Dei star Xavier Johnson who dropped a team-high 20 points the last time around. USC is also going to have to get out to Colorado’s shooters behind the three-point line and not jump out to a slow start. In Colorado, the Trojans faced a 20-2 deficit to begin the game, which can’t happen in the NCAA Tournament.
Burton: Be smart. The Trojans are not as bad as their record indicates, but they have been plagued this season by inexplicable lapses in concentration. Each loss has seemed to include a lull where the Trojans just sort of lose focus, taking bad shots and committing dumb turnovers. Generally, the severity of the loss correlates to the length of the lull. Clearly this is easier said than done, but … don’t have a lull.
Freedman: Get more aggressive down low. It’s been a struggle for senior centers Omar Oraby and D.J. Haley on defense against the Buffs this year, as Colorado big men Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott have scored 67 points in two games against USC this season. Haley has been playing well of late, and if USC can limit, not stop, Colorado in the paint, then the Trojans could combine that with hot shooting into an upset.
Q: Should USC win its first-round matchup, the team would advance to play Cal. How do the Trojans match up against the Bears?
Selbe: USC actually matches up well against Cal. The Trojans dominated in the two teams’ first meeting at the Galen Center in a 77-69 win, the Trojans’ first conference win of the season. In the second matchup, the game was tightly contested for most of the game, despite USC playing without a suspended Byron Wesley. Cal plays more with a finesse style, which bodes well for USC. At full strength, the Trojans should, at the very least, hang tough with the Bears, especially considering that Cal enters the tournament having lost four of its last six games.
Laws: Not going to happen.
Nourian: USC isn’t going to win its first-round matchup against Colorado, but in the event that the team does, the Trojans actually match up very well with the Bears, having beaten them earlier in conference play, one of just two conference wins. With [freshman forward] Nikola Jovanovic and [senior center] Omar Oraby up front, the Trojans have a size advantage and out-rebounded the Golden Bears in their last meeting [at the Galen Center].
Burton: Cal is, amazingly, one of USC’s two Pac-12 wins this season. They can, in theory, run with almost anyone in the conference, including the Bears. But there’s no questioning who the better team is.
Freedman: Out of all the teams, I was rooting for USC to face Cal in the opening round. They’ve already defeated the Golden Bears this season, and given that Cal is not a great offense squad, USC’s guards could go off and spring another win.
Q: USC enters the tournament as the 12th and lowest seed. Is there any way the Trojans can muster a title run?
Selbe: A title run seems out of the question for USC this season. As the team showed during the regular season conference schedule, it just doesn’t have the firepower to consistently beat Pac-12 competition. To make matters worse, Enfield inherited a roster that doesn’t quite fit his style, and as a result, the Trojans haven’t looked particularly sharp on offense all season. The team has made a habit of keeping the game close in the first half, then fading quickly in the second, usually as a result of a prolonged scoring drought. Maybe Enfield can spark some postseason magic like he did last year at Florida Gulf Coast, but after watching the Trojans struggle their way to a 2-16 conference record, that seems highly unlikely.
Laws: If they did, it’d be one of the greatest run of upsets in a major conference tournament ever. But they won’t. USC’s defense is simply not good enough this year to win four straight games against Pac-12 competition. Wins over Colorado and Cal are not out of the realm of possibility, but there’s no way the Trojans will advance past Arizona in the semifinals. Even a win over the Buffs would be shocking, though.
Nourian: There is a better chance that I get drafted by an NBA team than the Trojans winning the Pac-12 Tournament. Sorry to be pessimistic, but it’s just not going to happen.
Burton: As surprising as the women’s Pac-12 Championship is, they would have nothing on the men’s squad if the impossible were to happen. And yet, that’s why they play the games. Like I said, the Trojans are not as bad as their record. I, however, take some sort of sick, schadenfreude-like pleasure from the basketball team’s struggles (because seriously, how else would it be enjoyable?), so I’m gonna say no.
Freedman: No. These Trojans have shown that they can compete with anyone in the Pac-12 for 20 to 30 minutes. Yet only twice in the Pac-12 have they held on to win a game in the second half, and both of their wins were them staving off comebacks. The Trojans simply don’t have the consistency to reel off two strong halves, let alone four straight wins.
USC plays Colorado tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.