COLUMN: USC men’s basketball must heat up to compete in Pac-12

The normal order has been restored for college athletics in Los Angeles. USC football and UCLA basketball are back to their respective heights. USC is once again winning Rose Bowls with the best quarterback in college football leading the charge, while UCLA basketball is picking up marquee recruits and headlining a deep Pac-12 conference.

While the Trojans’ football resurgence has been enjoyable, it is also painful that USC’s triumphant 3-0 record against the Bruins last season when facing off on the hardwood was probably an anomaly. It is not that USC’s basketball team isn’t good — head coach Andy Enfield has built a competent program. Unfortunately, UCLA just has one of the best offenses in college basketball in a long time.

Notwithstanding the Bruins’ loss to Arizona on Saturday, UCLA’s offense is inarguably a thing of beauty that has yet to really be stymied. On Wednesday, the Trojans will get their first crack at knocking off the Bruins.

The best chance USC has of beating UCLA is disrupting freshman Lonzo Ball’s rhythm. This has been a tall task thus far this season, but USC might have one of the few defenders athletic and strong enough to make it happen. Freshman guard De’Anthony Melton has proven to be a defensive wunderkind, and his long frame coupled with elite athleticism and strength gives him the chance to flummox Ball.

In the Trojan’s loss to Arizona last week, Melton was the only defender who seemingly bothered Wildcat freshman Lauri Maurkatenen. Even though Melton — at 6-foot-4 — gave up eight inches, on the few possessions they were matched up he was able to frustrate the stalwart from Arizona and force him into bad shots and questionable decisions.

Melton is already USC’s best on-ball defender since Marcus Simmons at the end of the Tim Floyd era. Offensively, he is leaps and bounds better than Simmons, but he still needs to make further strides on that side of the court in terms of consistent shooting and better ball handling with his weak hand.

To beat the Bruins, the Trojans need a lot things to go right. Chief among them is Melton locking up Ball. They don’t need him to match Ball point-for-point or play-for-play – the Trojans have other offensive weapons to help potentially counteract the UCLA assault from deep. They just need the Melton who, so far this season, has been one of the best defenders in the Pac-12.

Outside of Melton, the Trojans do need those offensive weapons to come out clicking. In order to compete with UCLA, USC will need many of its shooters to rise out of their prolonged slumps. Without proper floor spacing, USC’s half court offense struggles to routinely score. As of late, the offense has had this exact problem. Without sophomore Bennie Boatwright, the Trojans’ only dependable 3-point shooter is Jonah Mathews, who is still adjusting to the college game. Though junior guards Elijah Stewart and Jordan McLaughlin can hit the occasional outside shot and catch fire, they are not consistent threats from beyond the arc. This is why USC has been inept offensively against the elite tier of the Pac-12 conference.

With the exception of the final 10 minutes of the Arizona game, USC’s offense has been abysmal against the best Pac-12 teams. UCLA, along with Oregon, Utah and Arizona, are a class above the Trojans right now. Maybe that will change when Boatwright returns from injury, and the Trojans can run the offense the way Enfield envisioned it at the start of the season.

For now, the Trojans are a talented team that takes care of business against the foes they are supposed to beat. Poor shooting and offensive execution has prevented them from taking the leap to excellence within the Pac-12. Maybe the Trojans come out on Wednesday with the same hot streak they ended the Arizona game with and score enough to beat UCLA. They will need some of their streak shooters to perform in addition to Melton having the defensive performance of his young career. UCLA basketball is unfortunately back, but USC does have the talent to play the role of spoiler.

It’s not as sweet as the superiority the Trojans had last year, but any rivalry win would be welcome.

Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,”  runs Mondays.