After picking up a strong home victory over Washington State on Wednesday, USC now looks to host another foe from the north this Saturday as it takes on Washington in its final contest of the regular season. In order to pick up a win in what will be a crucial game against the Huskies, there are several areas of emphasis in which USC must excel to finish its season on a firm note.
Be Ready For Fultz
It’s no secret to anyone that Washington goes as its superstar freshman guard Markelle Fultz goes. Averaging 23.2 points per game, 5.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game this season, Fultz is a finalist for some of the most high-profile college basketball awards — including the John Wooden Award, which honors the top player in the nation.
However, Fultz is currently listed as questionable for playing in Saturday’s game against the Trojans, as he is recovering from what has been announced as a sore right knee injury.
When USC and Washington played on Feb. 1, Fultz finished with 20 points (7-for-17 shooting), six assists and five rebounds.
“He’s a great player, and he’s able to score at all three levels offensively,” said junior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who could be pitted against Fultz in the backcourt Saturday. “He’s also able to get his teammates involved, so we’ve been practicing on keying in defensively.”
Should Fultz take the floor for Washington on Saturday, the Trojans need to be prepared to defend one of the most lethal offensive talents in the nation.
Establish the defensive pressure
In its 87-64 victory over Washington State on Wednesday, USC was able to record nine steals and collect seven blocks on defense.
In the first half alone, the Trojans were able to capitalize by scoring 17 points off of 11 Washington State turnovers to open the game. USC’s defensive play opened up large opportunities in transition for easy baskets.
“When you get nine steals it means you’re getting out in transition a lot, too,” men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield said. “Then in transition we’re making good passes and hitting open shots.”
The Trojans have been scrappy on defense all season long, as they lead the Pac-12 in steals (averaging 6.9 per game). USC has also defended the paint, as it ranks third in the conference in blocked shots per game at 5.5.
Freshman guard De’Anthony Melton is currently second in the conference in steals with 57 (he trails only UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Washington’s Matisse Thybulle who have 58).
The Trojans will need another solid effort defensively in their home arena Saturday to come away with a win over Washington. Not only has the Trojans defensive unit knocked opponents off-rhythm, but they also create opportunities in transition.
Since returning from an MCL injury on Feb. 1, sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright has averaged 18.3 PPG over the last eight games.
Boatwright’s first game returning from his injury came against the Huskies in Washington on Feb. 1. In his return, Boatwright immediately looked in the swing of things offensively, as he finished with a game-high 23 points.
A 6-foot-10 forward with the ability to create his own shot in the paint, mid-range or from beyond 3-point range, Boatwright brings a unique dynamic to the Trojan offense. Another strong performance from Boatwright against Washington will be essential, as the Trojans would like to see their primary scorer heat up as the Pac-12 Tournament approaches in the coming week.
Keep the hot hand
In their last two games against Washington State and Arizona State, USC is shooting a combined 66-for-121 (54.5 percent) from the field. From 3-point range the Trojans shot a combined 22-for-52 (42.3 percent) against the Cougars and Sun Devils.
“It’s been nice to see our team shooting the ball better over the past couple of games. Even in the loss (to Arizona State) I thought we were shooting well,” Enfield said.
The last time that Washington and USC played, the Trojans finished the game by making 17 of their final 25 shot attempts (68 percent) in regulation. USC will look to replicate this showing on the floor Saturday.
Play a complete game
This may be the most crucial point of focus for the Trojans, not just on Saturday, but for the remainder of their season.
USC suffered a dramatic loss on Feb. 26 against Arizona State in which a 10-point lead for the Trojans with 3:57 remaining in play evaporated. The Trojans were unable to execute and play situational basketball and clinch the victory over the Sun Devils.
The last thing the Trojans can afford to do is give away Saturday’s game in similarly-devastating fashion. Should Washington beat USC due to the Trojans’ inability to finish the game, it will do some serious damage to the Trojans’ Pac-12 and NCAA Tournament hopes going forward.
“When you have a lead, you have to be able to play for 40 complete minutes,” Enfield said. “(Our players) know what’s at stake. We are playing a two-game season. Washington State was game one, and now we are on to Washington Saturday for game two. Our players need to come out with the same energy they did (on Wednesday).”