PREVIEW & PREDICTION - CALIFORNIA AT USC
SC is one of two truly evil empires in Pac-10 football - the other being Team Swoosh - but I can't help but root for their basketball team a little bit (not tomorrow, of course). These Trojans have endured the tragic loss of Ryan Francis in the off-season, the importance of which transcends its impact on the basketball court. Their team is the antithesis of Henry Bibby's manic-depressive crews who could always be counted on to do something silly in crunch time. They usually play lock-down defense, and show much greater discipline on offense than teams past. Lastly, Tim Floyd is a solid and somewhat likable coach who is helping to build a stronger and more competitive conference.
But they're still connected to USC, so let's not get carried away.
When last we saw the Trojans, they were clawing out a narrow 76-73 victory over our Bears at Haas. Since then, they've won 4 of 6, but some cracks are showing. For one thing, top frosh Taj Gibson is wearing down physically. How do I know that? Taj Gibson said so, in a story in the LA Times. It shows in his production - two points against Arizona, a goose egg v ASU. He bounced back a bit last night, with 8 points and 8 boards against Stanford, but he's not quite the game changer he was in the first half of the season. As much as Taylor Harrison would love to take credit for getting in his head, I think we can chalk this up to freshman fatigue.
Without Gibson, USC becomes the Three Amigos on offense with Nick Young, Lodrick Stewart and Gabe Pruitt shouldering almost all the scoring burden. Against the Cardinal they had 57 of the team's 69 points. That will get them into the tourney, but they need Gibson to provide better balance to get much further than one-and-done.
SC can be turned over, and we'll see whether Ben gets creative with half-court traps and the occasional full-court pressure - Cal is of course limited in how long they can play this style by their injury situation. When USC coughs up the rock, they lose - against ASU they had 16 turnovers and backup guard Daniel Hackett had four in only 15 minutes of play.
What the Trojans have done really well all year long is play defense. USC is 9th in the nation in effective FG% (the list goes UConn, A&M, Memphis, Fresno St., Kansas, Maryland, USC and Michigan St.) Even here, though, the Trojans have had confounding stretches of ineptitude. Against ASU, an almost primitive offensive team, the Trojans surrendered 47 points in the second half.
So...glass half empty or half full? Is this a twenty-win team with gaudy defensive stats, or a tired team full of front court holes? Is the Stanford win impressive, given how big the Cardinal are inside, or is it somewhat tainted by the fact that Anthony Goods was out with an ankle sprain? Hmmm....
I think the answer is yes. SC is a very good defensive team, but they showed against ASU that they can't afford any lapses, even against a pretty feeble offensive team. They've got talented scorers on offense, but not much behind them, and therefore they struggle when any one of their big guns has an off night. And, they're now relying on pep talks from Petey to get them fired up. Not an encouraging sign.
Despite their talents, and despite the guy sitting on their bench, they can be had. Cal will need to execute like they did in the first half of last night's game, and the Bears must take care of the basketball and not waste possessions (unlike last night's game). Anderson must have another strong game, and Ubaka, Wilkes and Christopher need to bring their best on defense.
You know, it's not that far fetched.