USC looks to exact revenge against Cal

As the USC men’s basketball team enters the second half of February with just the faintest of hopes of crashing the Big Dance in March, USC coach Kevin O’Neill understands the importance of simplifying his team’s focus, especially as it travels to the Bay Area, where it hasn’t swept since 1992.

High hopes · After losing six of their last nine games, junior forward Nikola Vucevic and the USC men’s basketball players look to defeat Cal this weekend. Cal bested the Trojans earlier this season at the Galen Center. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

“We just need to play every game one at a time,” O’Neill said. “From there we will just see where we end up at the end of the year.”

First up on the Trojans Northern California tour is a stop at Haas Pavilion tonight to take on an equally underperforming opponent in California.

When the Trojans embarked on their Oregon road trip a month ago, the season held a lot of promise.

But from poor perimeter defense to inconsistent guard play and untimely scoring droughts, what has transpired over the last 30 days has turned lofty goals into unfulfilled expectations.

“We are not going to win 18 or 19 games,” O’Neill said. “We’d have to win the rest of them and I don’t know if we’re capable of that.”

To add insult to injury, the Trojans (13-12, 5-7) haven’t won at Berkeley since January 2007 and have struggled mightily on the road during Pac-10 play this season, winning just one game in five contests.

In addition to its road woes, USC has already lost to Cal (13-12, 6-7) this season, back on Jan. 22 when the Bears pulled out a narrow 68-66 victory at the Galen Center.

Despite senior guard Donte Smith’s career-high 24 points on eight three-point baskets in their first meeting, USC could not contain the Bears’ physicality, primarily from junior forward Harper Kamp.

Kamp led California with 19 points (10 of which came in the final seven minutes), but after landing an elbow to the jaw of junior forward Nikola Vucevic in the first half, USC’s interior post presence was essentially nonexistent.

Vucevic — who comes into tonight’s 7:30 p.m. tip-off leading USC with 16.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game, finished the night with just six points, his lowest point total on the Pac-10 season.

Although things remain bleak for the visibly frustrated Trojans with six games to play in their conference schedule plus the upcoming Pac-10 tournament, there is still time to save face in a season slowly fading away.

And if USC can hang its hat on anything that rings of optimism, it has been its performance on Thursday nights.

The Trojans are 4-1 on Thursdays this season, winning by an average of more than 16 points per game.

Also, although the team played from behind for most of their 61-51 loss to Oregon last Saturday at the Galen Center, the backcourt duo of junior Jio Fontan and freshman Maurice Jones finally look as though they are starting to build some chemistry with one another.

In defeat, the two guards combined for a season-high 12 assists — a much-needed boost for USC, who currently sits in last place in the conference with only 12 assists per game.

The Trojans conclude their two-game road trip in Palo Alto, Calif. Saturday night to take on Stanford.

USC’s 65-42 victory over the Cardinal (13-11, 6-7) on Jan. 20 was its largest conference win of the season.