After a weekend in which the USC men’s basketball team split two hard-fought games that came down to the final seconds, the Trojans hit the road to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.
USC (8-11, 3-3) staved off a tough Oregon State defense in the final minutes to secure a 69-68 victory Saturday, despite allowing the Beavers to overcome a 15-point deficit in the second half. Arizona State (14-4, 3-2) suffered a 17-point loss to its in-state rival, No. 6 Arizona, whom the Trojans will face Saturday.
The win for USC, which comes as the first under interim head coach Bob Cantu, moved the Trojans up to No. 6 in the Pac-12 standings, just one position behind the Sun Devils. With their next three games coming on the road against Pac-12 opponents, USC has the potential to make a serious move this week.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” junior center Omar Oraby said. “[The Sun Devils] are a very good team, one of the top teams in our conference. We have nothing to lose so we have to go out and play and get some wins.”
USC leads the all-time series against Arizona State, but the Trojans lost both times the teams met last season. Still, Cantu sees the upcoming game as a new matchup.
“They’re a lot different than they were a year ago,” Cantu said. “They’re playing a lot more man-to-man defense. We’ve got to be able to take care of the basketball whether they’re playing man or zone.”
Cantu was confident about the team’s performance during a practice held Tuesday afternoon, acknowledging the focus he observed in all of his players, especially in light of their adjustment to the coaching changes.
“All the guys were fantastic today,” Cantu said. “They’ve been great since this transition and I’m confident I can play any of these guys at any time.”
Part of Cantu’s confidence comes from the team’s performances in games against Oregon and Oregon State last week, both of which were decided in the final seconds — a loss against Oregon after three missed shots at the buzzer and a winning layup with 4.8 seconds remaining against Oregon State.
Despite the loss against No. 16 Oregon, the fact that the team was able to compete against the nationally ranked Ducks boosted its morale.
“Although we lost, we played down to the wire and [the Ducks] were a top team in the country so we have a lot of confidence going into the road trip,” Oraby said.
USC will face more tough competition from Arizona State and especially from freshman guard Jahii Carson, who is posting statistics that rank him alongside some of the best players in the conference. Despite the loss against Arizona, the star freshman led the Sun Devils in scoring for the 12th time and posted 22 points, marking his eighth 20-point game.
With one of the most challenging schedules, featuring seven games against teams ranked in the NCAA RPI Top 50, USC has already faced off against a number of tough teams and players. The Trojans have especially shown their offensive power in conference games, ranking fourth in points per game with 69.0 and leading all teams with a 45.8 shooting percentage.
USC will need to maintain that production against a staunch defensive squad from Arizona State, which boasts 133 blocks in 18 games (averaging 7.4 per game), good for fourth in the nation.
Still, Pac-12 play thus far shows that statistics alone won’t predict the outcome of a game, a conclusion that Cantu has stressed to his players regarding their upcoming games this week.
“In conference play, anybody can beat anybody,” Cantu said. “We just have to stay focused and try to compete and play hard.”