The Bob Cantu era at USC begins Thursday night as the Trojans return home from a Rocky Mountain road trip to host the No. 21 Oregon Ducks at 8 p.m.
USC (7-10, 2-2 in Pac-12 play) is coming off an impressive 17-point road win over Utah last Saturday, while the Ducks (14-2, 3-0) knocked off previously unbeaten No. 7 Arizona last week and are ranked in the Associated Press top-25 for the first time since 2007.
The Trojans will be playing their first game without former USC coach Kevin O’Neill, who was fired Monday. Cantu was named the interim head coach, presumably until the end of the season.
After a five-game losing streak in the non-conference schedule, the Trojans have won three of their last five and look to be on the upswing. The coaching change, however, means a change in playing style is underway and that coveted minutes could be up for grabs Thursday night.
“As a coach, you just need to be open-minded to anything and be able to adjust,” Cantu said. “The biggest thing in this situation and any situation as coach is listening to your players.”
Cantu also mentioned in a press conference Monday that he plans to implement more zone defense and wants a more aggressive defensive effort.
“I want turnover pushers,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways of putting points on the board, so we have to find ways of doing that on the defensive end more often.”
Cantu also plans to increase the tempo of a Trojan offense that is 11th in scoring in the Pac-12. Leading scorer Eric Wise (11.9 points per game) hopes to help in that regard and has some ideas on how to quicken the team’s production.
“I’m cool with my role [on offense], but maybe just like where I can get other people involved,” Wise said. “Maybe [I can] drive more and kick it.”
Junior forward Dewayne Dedmon is having arguably the best stretch of his career, and the 7-foot Dedmon could team with 7-foot-2 junior center Omar Oraby to give the Trojans a definite height advantage in the post. Dedmon is averaging 10.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and three blocks per game over his past five contests.
“[We’re] just trying to keep the energy and making sure everyone’s on the same page,” Dedmon said on preparing for Oregon while dealing with the coaching change. “If we can just take that momentum from Utah and just keep it rolling, then it’ll definitely be good.”
Though the on-court results of having Cantu calling the shots have yet to be seen, the visiting Ducks are off and rolling to their best start since their Elite 8 run in 2007. Under third-year coach Dana Altman, the Ducks run a balanced, high-tempo offense that is averaging 76.4 points per contest.
Every Oregon starter is averaging double-digit scoring, with shooting guard Damyean Doston leading the way with 11.8 points per game. Center Tony Woods anchors the paint for the Ducks, while forward Arsalan Kazemi is averaging 9.4 rebounds and adjusting to his new role as sixth man after transferring from Rice University.
A critical weakness of the Ducks is their tendency to be turnover-prone. The Ducks hold the dubious distinction of leading the conference with 15.4 turnovers per game, though Oregon does lead the conference in forced turnovers as well. In the Ducks’ two losses, they averaged 18 turnovers.
The burden to stop Oregon’s lightning-quick point guard Dominic Artis, who shot a combined 25.8 percent from the floor in those two losses, will likely fall upon USC senior point guard Jio Fontan.