Luckily for the USC men’s basketball team (2-1, 0-0), a 30-game season is a lot like life: It’s not black or white but rather shades of grey.
For the majority of Wednesday’s ugly 77-57 loss to Rider (2-1, 0-0), a calamity of errors over 40 hard-to-watch minutes cast a highly visible tone of darkness over what initially looked to be an impressive start to the 2010-2011 campaign.
The Trojans didn’t wait long to fall apart against the visiting Broncs in the Galen Center, spotting their New Jersey-based foes an 11-4 lead within the blink of an eye.
For most of the night, USC’s freshman backcourt — Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones — looked every bit their age with a bevy of bad misses, forced passes and defensive missteps. The two marquee players in USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s 2010 recruiting class finished a combined 8-for-28 shooting with seven turnovers.
Midway through the first half, O’Neill went to a temporary Plan B: senior guard Donte Smith.
After awkward misfires on his first two 3-point attempts, Smith connected on his next three shots to even the score at 21 a piece.
But USC’s much-improved Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponent didn’t cower under the L.A. spotlight and instead turned to its most-experienced scorers: guards Justin Robinson and Jhamar Youngblood.
The Broncs’ backcourt proved to be the better tandem heading into the locker room, going on a two-man 15-point run to give Rider coach Tommy Dempsey’s team a 36-27 lead after 20 minutes.
Just minutes in to the second half, it appeared the 15-minute intermission was all for naught, as the Broncs’ knocked down two long 3-point attempts off the hot hand of Robinson and guard Jonathon Thompson.
Three quick personal foul calls on junior forward Nikola Vucevic and a moving screen by senior guard Marcus Simmons later, and the Trojans found themselves staring at an insurmountable hole at 48-30 with 16 minutes to play.
And on a night in which highlights were few and far between, even when Maurice Jones tried to rally the troops with a few fancy dribble-drive penetration moves, O’Neill’s lackluster team found a way to squander any momentum the freshman from Saginaw, Mich., attempted to single-handedly create.
“We were outplayed A to Z,” a visibly frustrated O’Neill said after the game. “The bottom line is it’s unacceptable. We didn’t play the right way. We didn’t play together. We split apart.”
From quick-fire shots that fell aimlessly off the mark, to errant passes into the stands to two uncontested 3-point shots by Robinson, with just less than seven minutes to play, USC’s faulty comeback attempt came to a crashing halt, as the Broncs ungratefully poured it on en route to a 25-point lead with just more than six minutes left in the contest — the Trojans’ largest deficit of the young season.
When the final buzzer finally sounded to conclude a night even video tape wouldn’t do justice to, the boisterous Broncs and their senior star Robinson — who led all scores with 28 points on 9-of-10 shooting and 5-for-5 in 3-point attempts — walked out of the lifeless Galen Center with a 20-point victory that was never in doubt.
“I just thought we looked like we were in chill-out mode,” O’Neill said. “And we can’t be in chill-out mode against good teams.”
For the Trojans there simply was no silver lining in a game that was as grim as a nonconference home blowout can be. The listless squad gave up an uncharacteristic 12 field goals from behind the 3-point line — one more make than the Broncs had from 2-point range — and offensively failed to crack a rather basic 2-3 defensive zone that Rider employed throughout Wednesday’s one-sided matchup.
“It seems like nothing went right,” senior forward Alex Stepheson said. “Our defense wasn’t getting stops. And our offense was taking bad shots and making bad turnovers. It was just a terrible game for us.”
But the Trojans will have little time to dwell on their embarrassing home defeat, as the team wraps up the three-game Hall of Fame Classic Tournament this weekend on the road in Springfield, Mass., against Bradley University on Saturday and New Mexico State on Sunday.
“We are going to go up from here,” Stepheson said. “We’re young and so everyone is going to learn from it. We are just going to take this as a bad experience and move on.”
The team will return home next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. to face inner-state foe Cal State Fullerton, in what it hopes will be an opportunity to prove that one night of enervated play doesn’t define the ultimate shade of their potentially bright future.