The USC men’s basketball team might have played its last game at the Galen Center in its victory over Arizona State last Sunday, but the season isn’t over. The Trojans (14-15, 9-7 Pac-12) will travel to Washington to face the Huskies on Wednesday and the Washington State Cougars on Saturday to finish the regular season before entering the Pac-12 championship next week.
Senior guard Jio Fontan sprained his wrist in the victory over the Sun Devils last Sunday but was cleared to play Wednesday. Fontan admitted that the wrist was still sore but that he hoped to be ready for tipoff. In preparing for the Huskies, the floor general was emphatic about starting strong, as the Trojans have done in big wins over Arizona and UCLA.
“First and foremost, just get stops,” Fontan said. “Whenever we get stops and get out in transition, we’re very effective. If we can get stops early on in the game, we’ll put ourselves in a position to win later on. If we give up too many points in the first half, a lot of the baskets will have to come in the half court and [that will] slow everything down.”
The importance of pace was echoed in practice by assistant coach Dieter Horton, who at one point stopped a drill to emphasize how opting for a bounce pass instead of a standard swing pass at the wings could interrupt rhythm and slow the delicately timed pacing of the half-court set.
For veterans like senior forward Eric Wise, keeping up with the pace of the offense is just a matter of preparation. Wise, who is coming off a season-high 22 point outing in last week’s win over Arizona, will look to continue his strong play in finishing the season.
“We just have to come out ready to play and warm up hard,” Wise said. “I know for me, I just try to come into every game focused. Hopefully [last week’s success] can carry over into this weekend.”
Junior Dewayne Dedmon emphasized the importance of defensive intensity in facing the Huskies’ own brand of fast-paced offense.
“We have to come out with the same intensity that we had the first time we played them,” Dedmon said. “We have to come out with energy and make sure that we get stops on the defensive end.”
The Huskies (16-13, 8-8 Pac-12) are led by sharpshooting senior guard Scott Suggs and junior guard C.J. Wilcox. Wilcox leads Washington in scoring at 17.3 points per game, good for sixth in the Pac-12, and Suggs is shooting a respectable 38 percent from beyond the arc on the season. When asked what the Trojans must do to limit the Huskies’ tandem of wings offensively, USC interim head coach Bob Cantu started on the other side of the court.
“Transition defense — they’re very good at home, they have a great crowd and a great environment,” Cantu said. “They like to push the ball and do a good job of getting out in the open court. We have to get back and defend the three-point line against Wilcox and Suggs, [and] we have to be able to take good shots on offense that don’t lead to long rebounds and easy baskets for them. If we can control tempo and execute, then I like our chances.”
Despite a season filled with trials and difficulties, the Trojans have been surprisingly stellar in conference play, and they have an outside shot at securing a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. USC owns the tiebreaker over No. 18 Arizona (23-6, 11-6 Pac-12) and is tied with Colorado (19-9, 9-7 Pac-12) who plays host to No. 19 Oregon (23-6, 12-4 Pac-12) Thursday. A loss from Colorado and Arizona would open the door to the No. 4 seed for the Trojans, who can then secure the bye with two wins to finish the season. When asked if the thought of the first round bye was on the Trojans’ mind, Fontan eschewed bravado in favor of perspective.
“At this time, I think it’s just a matter of getting better,” Fontan said. “A lot of our veteran guys like Eric Wise and Dewayne Dedmon are starting to get more comfortable in the offense, and defensively getting more accustomed to what we’re trying to do.”
The Trojans have steadily improved since Cantu took over for former head coach Kevin O’Neill, and they are starting to play up to the expectations that had prefaced their season. The Pac-12 has yet to see one outright dominant team, as the top-six teams in the Pac-12 are separated by three losses. All of this considered, the prospect of missing the first-round bye didn’t fluster floor leader Fontan in the least.
“If we have to play four games out in Vegas, we’ll take it,” Fontan said.