Going into Tennessee to play an underdog Vanderbilt team proved to be a huge challenge for the 10th-ranked men’s basketball team. Now, the Trojans must get through Patriot League contender Lehigh on Wednesday night before their biggest non-conference test yet, when USC battles No. 16 Texas A&M at home on Sunday afternoon.
The Trojans, fresh off a thrilling 93-89 overtime victory over the Commodores on Sunday, are looking to put in sharper performances this week against two teams that both have powerful offenses.
Wednesday night’s home contest against Lehigh will feature a 3-1 Mountain Hawk team that has survived two overtime tests in the early going. In Lehigh’s wins over Marist (84-76) and Siena (91-90), the Mountain Hawks shot a combined 58 3-pointers, completing 24 of them for a 41.3 percent clip.
Vanderbilt nailed 11 of its 23 deep balls (47.8 percent) against USC on Sunday, including 10 combined 3s from Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance.
For Lehigh, not only can starting guards Lance Tejada, Kahron Ross and Kyle Leufroy hit from beyond the arc (combined 21-of-58), but forward Pat Andree and bench star Jordan Cohen can also score from long range (combined 17-of-39). Considering USC allowed North Dakota State and Vanderbilt to complete 21 of their 52 combined 3-point attempts (40.3 percent), the Trojans are certain to cue in on their perimeter defense against a 3-heavy Lehigh ballclub.
The Trojans could utilize their 3-2 zone scheme once again Wednesday night versus an undersized Mountain Hawk squad. With improved play from junior 6-foot-11 forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, the Trojans could ravage the guard-heavy Hawks on the offensive and defensive glass. The twin towers have combined for 79 points and 29 rebounds in the past two games and should impress again on Wednesday night back on their home court.
Although USC’s tilt with Lehigh will be important to sustaining the team’s perfect non-conference mark, Sunday’s home matchup with top-ranked Texas A&M will be the game that could make or break the Trojans’ national championship momentum.
In last year’s road game against the Aggies, the Trojans squeaked out a 65-63 victory despite being down 7 points with 3:31 to go in the second half. Key offensive plays from senior guard Jordan McLaughlin and the rest of the offense secured a narrow USC victory over an A&M team that ended last season with a mediocre 16-15 record.
More than a year after McLaughlin’s 13-point performance, the senior captain scored a career-high 35 at Vanderbilt, including two clutch 3-point buckets to send the game into overtime and then to give USC its initial 83-80 lead in overtime.
To beat a 3-0 Texas A&M squad, not only will McLaughlin need to replicate Sunday’s performance, but USC’s entire offense will also need to fire on all cylinders. The Aggies demolished then-No. 11 West Virginia 88-65 before cruising past UC Santa Barbara 84-65 at home and beating previously undefeated Oklahoma State 72-55.
DJ Hogg, a 6-foot-9 stretch forward, scored a team-high 17 points in A&M’s last meeting with USC and has the opportunity to beat that mark this week. Considering USC’s inability to stop the 3-point shot this season, marksmen Hogg (9-for-13) and Admon Gilder
(6-for-10) could have a field day at the Galen Center if the Trojans can’t contain a Texas A&M team that is 51.2 percent from downtown this year.
Stopping the deep ball will be a key factor in wins over Lehigh and Texas A&M. But unlike USC’s matchup against Lehigh, Texas A&M also brings massive size. With the potential to start three 6-foot-10 forwards and still score buckets with a 6-foot-9 wing in Hogg, the Aggies look to be the favorite over a Trojans squad that features lengthy but undersized players such as Boatwright, Metu, sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic and freshman forward Victor Uyaelunmo.
A&M head coach Billy Kennedy could challenge USC with an interior emphasis on offense, leading to fouls for USC’s bigs that almost came back to haunt the Trojans in Nashville Sunday night. Against Vanderbilt, every USC starter picked up three or more personal fouls, and Boatwright fouled out late as the team racked up a season-high 26 personal fouls leading to 20 Vanderbilt points.
USC didn’t eclipse 23 fouls all of last year. This season, the Trojans have done so twice (25 fouls versus Cal State Fullerton).
Regardless of the foul totals, both of USC’s next two games are important not just for upholding the program’s No. 10 ranking and perfect season, but also for setting the foundation for conference play when the competition will rise and home-court advantage means that much more.
The Trojans play the Mountain Hawks at 7 p.m. Wednesday before facing the Aggies at 7 p.m. Sunday.