Crazy seems to be the new normal for the USC men’s basketball team. Whether it be a stunning road win over UCLA or a jarring 25-point loss to Pac-12 bottom-dweller Washington State to conclude the regular season, there have been few instances where the Trojans have lived up to their “average” 9-9 conference record.
This might just be good thing, since the Trojans (14-17, 9-9 in Pac-12 play) will need a performance that is nothing short of special to find success this week, as they head to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament.
USC earned the seventh seed in the tournament and will face the 10th-seeded Utah Utes (13-17, 5-13 in Pac-12) in the first round on Wednesday at 6 p.m. USC is all but certain to miss the NCAA tournament, unless it wins four games in four days to take home the Pac-12 championship.
“We’ve proven that we can play and beat the best teams in the conference,” USC interim head coach Bob Cantu said. “We’ve beaten UCLA, we’ve beaten Arizona and I like our path in the tournament [and] our bracket. We’re just gonna take it one game at a time and see what happens on Wednesday with Utah.“
USC will need to narrow its focus this week after the school indefinitely suspended senior center James Blasczyk and junior forward Dewayne Dedmon from all team activities on Monday for violating a team rule. Cantu confirmed Monday that both will not play against Utah, but their statuses, if USC wins and advances, has not yet been determined. USC players were not made available to the media following Monday’s practice, the final session at the Galen Center before the Trojans left for Vegas Tuesday morning.
Blasczyk has played sparingly (seven minutes per game), but Dedmon leads the Trojans with seven rebounds per game to go with 2.1 blocks per contest, the third-highest total in the Pac-12. The loss of the two 7-footers leaves USC with 7-foot-2 junior Omar Oraby as the only center left on the roster. Oraby is playing just 13.9 minutes per game, but could double that if the big man out of Cairo avoids foul trouble. Conditioning is also an issue, but Cantu is making preparations.
“[Oraby will] use those timeouts, use those free throws and dead balls to catch his breath and be able to play a lot more minutes than he’s been playing,” Cantu said.
The Trojans defeated Utah 76-59 in Salt Lake City in January, a game that turned out to be former USC head coach Kevin O’Neill’s last before his firing on Jan. 14. The Trojans shot 50 percent from the field in that game while limiting the Utes to a 37.5 percent clip.
USC’s leading scorer in Utah was junior shooting guard J.T. Terrell, who also poured in 18 points in the 76-51 loss at Washington State.
The Wake Forest transfer is averaging 16 points over USC’s past seven games, shooting 43.6 percent from the field in those contests after making just 34.6 percent of his tries during USC’s first 24 games. His 2.5 3-pointers per game in conference play lead the Pac-12.
A step up in performance will be needed from senior forward Eric Wise. Along with senior point guard Jio Fontan, Wise was named Pac-12 honorable mention on Monday. But the UC Irvine transfer scored just seven points in each of USC’s losses at Washington and Washington State, shooting 25 percent on the two-game trip.
Fontan, as he has been all season, will be relied upon to run the point and make the sort of crisp passes that helped him finish second in the Pac-12 with 5.2 assists per game.
O’Neill constantly praised USC’s depth before the season, and USC’s new eight-man rotation will need to adjust to take over Blasczyk and Dedmon’s combined 29.3 minutes per game.
“That’s the good thing about our team, having talent [and] having depth,” Cantu said. “Other guys have opportunities, and they need to step up and play.”
Cantu mentioned senior forwards Aaron Fuller and Renaldo Woolridge as the candidates to receive increased playing time to fill in for the void in the post.
If the Trojans defeat Utah, they will play on Thursday evening against the second-seeded Cal Golden Bears, who beat the Trojans in both of the team’s meetings this season.