After opening with four straight wins in the month of February, the USC men’s basketball team rolled into Pullman, Wash., last Saturday only to have its streak snapped in a 51-47 loss to Washington State.
“We had won four in a row, and you know how that goes,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “Human nature, at every level — players soften up a little bit.”
The Trojans (16-10, 8-6) look to bounce back tonight against Oregon at the Galen Center. With just four games remaining in the season because of self-imposed sanctions, a victory against the Ducks (12-14, 4-10) takes on heightened importance.
The way O’Neill sees it, the team has “eight hours of basketball left to play.”
But even without the prospect of the postseason, USC has a little more at stake. Just a game and a half out of first place in the Pac-10, the Trojans still have a shot at capturing the conference regular season title.
“It’s been a goal of ours from the beginning,” O’Neill said. “That’s the only thing we can play for at this point.”
To achieve that goal, the Trojans first have to get past an Oregon squad that sits in last place in the Pac-10 but still got the best of the teams’ Jan. 30 meeting at McArthur Court. There, the Ducks took advantage of a technical foul called on USC student manager Stan Holt late in the game and shot 50 percent from the field on their way to a 67-57 victory.
Oregon will be hard-pressed to come up with a similar performance tonight. The Galen Center has proved to be a tough venue for visitors, as the Trojans have won 30 of their last 35 home games.
USC also boasts a significant size advantage down low. While Oregon forward Jeremy Jacob is the Ducks’ tallest starter at 6-foot-8, the Trojans counter with 6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward Alex Stepheson and 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic.
But that duo failed to deliver in USC’s recent loss to Oregon. Stepheson finished with zero points, and most of Vucevic’s 10 points and 14 rebounds did not come until late in the second half. Meanwhile, Jacob had a career-high 19 points and guard Malcolm Armstead added 18 points for the Ducks.
With a team that is ranked second to last in the conference in scoring at 59.5 points per game, the Trojans will need to get more production from their frontcourt. But as has been the case all season, one can expect USC to rely on its suffocating defense, led by senior guard Dwight Lewis.
“I think Dwight has become a really good — I guess I could call him a great — player and defender,” O’Neill said of Lewis, who on Saturday held Washington State star Klay Thompson to a career-low two points. “He’s faced whoever is the best player almost every game and done a magnificent job.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.