After their gut-wrenching loss to Cal, USC men’s basketball travels to the Pac-12 mountain schools to play Utah on Thursday night and Colorado on Sunday.
The Utes (11-4, 2-1) are 8-1 this season at the Huntsman Center, taking their only loss to the University of San Francisco on Dec. 22. Despite the loss of incumbent Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl, who was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the Toronto Raptors, Utah returns an immensely deep roster. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s arsenal includes nine players earning at least seven minutes per game, including six players averaging double digits on the season.
Yet again, Utah is led by experienced forwards. Junior Kyle Kuzma averages 14.8 points and leads the team with 9.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Six-foot-10-inch junior David Collette starts in the frontcourt alongside Kuzma. The Utah State transfer debuted as a Ute less than a month ago and scored in double figures in every game this season. He leads the Utes offense in scoring (15.4 points per game) and shooting percentage (.662).
In the past, Krystkowiak’s teams have been known for their half-court prowess but slow pace of play. This year, however, the Utes average as many possessions per 40 minutes as the Trojans. This is one reason why the Utes average 80 points per game. Another is that they shoot 58.3 percent from inside the arc — the sixth best in the nation. The Trojans must protect the rim or else Kuzma, Collette and company will have a field day.
With sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright out until at least February with a knee sprain, USC will continue to expect large contributions from the forwards — freshman Nick Rakocevic and redshirt senior Charles Buggs. Both alternate in and out of the rotation whenever the other picks up a foul, and each has struggled enormously with foul trouble. Rakocevic averages 6.75 fouls per 40 minutes and Buggs an even worse 7.3. Utah’s bigs will undoubtedly challenge the duo, and they cannot afford to foul cheaply.
Sunday’s challenger Colorado (10-6, 0-3) also defends its home court well, going 7-1 thus far this season. The Buffaloes play their Pac-12 home opener Thursday night against UCLA.
Colorado plays slower than Utah, and they average six fewer points. The team features a talented backcourt but one that has a meager 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior guard Derrick White leads the team in scoring with 15.8 and with 4.1 assists, but he also turns the ball over 2.8 times per game. Fellow senior Xavier Johnson averages 14.7 points per game, and he lit up Arizona’s defense with 26 points on Saturday.
Like Utah, Colorado fields a deep roster. Coach Tad Boyle rotates five bench players, and he starts five upperclassmen, including four seniors. USC is a much younger team and will have to play smarter than the experienced Buffs and win the turnover battle.
Junior guard Jordan McLaughlin looks forward to the challenge of achieving bounceback victories.
“We will prepare like we did this week for the Bay games,” McLaughlin said. “Since the Oregon loss, we’ve had some of our hardest practices of the year. Next week should be fun.”