Basketball gears up for Washington State

USC travels inland to face the Washington State Cougars on Saturday evening. The two teams are headed in the opposite direction at the midway point in Pac-12 play.

The Trojans (19-4, 6-4) have won three straight games including a win versus then-No. 8 UCLA and a double-digit comeback in Seattle on Wednesday night. Sophomore forward Bennie Boatwright returned to action for the first time since Nov. 30 and exhibited no signs of rust. Rather, he led the game in scoring, tying a career high with 23 points.

The Cougars (11-11, 4-6), meanwhile, have lost five of seven after starting conference play 2-0. Against UCLA on Wednesday, they lost by 16.

Two seniors, guard Ike Oreagbu and forward Josh Hawkinson, fuel WSU on both sides of the floor. Oreagbu averages 11.9 and 3.2 assists per game, but he is muddling through a terrific three-point shooting funk. He has but six makes in 28 attempts in conference play. He shot 1-3 from three-point range against UCLA, but managed 20 points by making 7-9 shots from inside the arc.

Hawkinson averages a double-double, 16 and 10, this season. Against UCLA, he had 15 points, nine assists and five rebounds but was beat badly on defense. UCLA forwards TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh combined for 47 points and fatigued the Cougars, WSU Coach Ernie Kent said.

With Boatwright back in the lineup, USC offers a tandem scoring threat in the paint. He and sophomore forward Chimezie Metu billed Washington for 38 points in their first conference game together. For a scary second, it appeared as if Metu was hurt after a four-man collision in the second half, but the forward returned to the game and made a major impact.

Head coach Andy Enfield believes that Boatwright can be USC’s primary scorer, but the Trojans do not have an established secondary option. Metu and juniors Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart each average double-digit scoring, but Stewart especially tends to be a bang-or-bust scorer. Against Washington he scored five points.

Reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week Shaqquan Aaron also has a high variance in his scoring outputs. A week after dropping 23 on UCLA, he quietly scored two points at Washington.

With Boatwright back, the whole structure of USC’s offense changes. It evolves around him, their most versatile scorer. Even their defense changed on Wednesday night, as the Trojans played some man-to-man with Boatwright in the lineup, something they have not been able to do effectively without him.

On Saturday night, Enfield will have another chance to gauge his adapting team versus another middling Pac-12 opponent. While the Cougars’ Josh Hawkinson will test Boatwright’s fledgling stamina, the Trojan offense will challenge Washington State’s defense that allows over 80 points per game in the Pac-12.