On Sunday, the USC men’s basketball team took on No. 23 San Diego State. It was a tale of two halves for the Trojans, who looked absolutely abysmal in the opening 20 minutes of action before coming all the way back and nearly winning the game. Ultimately, the Aztecs pulled out a 66-60 victory at the Galen Center.
The Trojans fell to 3-3 with the loss to SDSU, and have generally failed to impress early in the season. They easily disposed of the clearly less talented teams they’ve faced —Coppin State and Long Beach State — and squeaked out an overtime win against an undermanned Texas squad. But the University of Illinois blew out USC by a final score of 94-64, and Marquette also had their way with the Trojans in the consolation bracket of the Maui Invitational. There are plenty of red flags popping up over the Trojans’ relatively slow start, making USC coach Kevin O’Neill’s hot seat even hotter. But I’d maintain patience with this team, which has shown some flashes of being a possible contender in the Pac-12 this winter.
USC’s schedule isn’t going to get any easier—in fact, it looks even more difficult now than it did before the season started. Its next game is a road matchup against 4-1 University of Nebraska. Then it’s two straight battles against top 25 schools — No. 25 New Mexico and No. 21 Minnesota. After a few filler games, Pac-12 play kicks off on Jan. 3.
In the end, though, that tougher schedule will aid the Trojans if they hope to muster any sort of run at the NCAA tournament. Quality wins against top 25 schools would be a huge lift to a March Madness resume, however unlikely that might appear now. USC surely gained some confidence after hanging tough with SDSU in what was practically a neutral court thanks to a large and vocal turnout of Aztec fans. The Trojans are still meshing together lots of new pieces, but they’re more than capable of taking down a borderline ranked squad.
It’s also important to remember the Trojans, especially senior point guard Jio Fontan and junior guard J.T. Terrell, just haven’t shot the ball well. Terrell leads the team at 12.5 points per game but is shooting just 31 percent from the floor, nearly identical to his 3-point percentage. Fontan, meanwhile, is putting up 7.7 points per game on an incredibly low 23 percent of his attempts. Two years ago, he knocked in 41 percent of his shots. That number is going to stabilize sooner or later, even if the point guard struggles to totally make it back to his pre-2012 numbers (he missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament). Terrell, on the other hand, is trying to adjust back to Division 1 competition after a year at the junior college level.
“For the most part J.T. has been taking some of his shots, shots that he makes on a consistent basis,” Fontan said after USC’s loss to San Diego State. “They just haven’t been falling. As for myself, I just have to play better. It’s been a rough couple of games, I just have to make more shots. I just have to be a better player.”
It’s very possible expectations for USC’s backcourt — Terrell especially — might have been slightly overblown. But if Fontan and Terrell can muster anywhere near solid shooting nights, the Trojans will be awfully tough to beat with an inside game featuring three 7-footers and talented senior forward Eric Wise. Wise in particular has been an unexpected bright spot for USC, averaging 11.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He’s also second on the team in assists and has generally been the only consistent performer on the roster.
Regardless of what you think of O’Neill’s coaching tenure at USC, the one thing he constantly preaches is strong defense, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Illinois annihilated the Trojans to the tune of 94 points, but it was an anomaly of a shooting performance, as the Fighting Illini shot nearly 70 percent in the first half and knocked down 13 3-pointers for the game.
For the most part, USC has put out a solid interior defensive unit and seems to be improving in the rebounding department. The only thing missing is more consistency scoring the ball, plain and simple. This isn’t last year’s roster — there are legitimate division-one options who just aren’t making shots right now. When those players do start converting, the Trojans can begin molding together a possible March Madness resume.
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