Trojans' Return to .500 Incredibly Painful

While it may be cliché to say, each athletic competition provides teams with the opportunity to either improve upon their previous performance or instead continue to develop poor tendencies. Unfortunately, the latter was the case during the Trojans' 59-53 victory over Idaho State on Friday night.

Despite a seemingly more talented starting five, USC struggled immensely during the second half of the game when Idaho State reverted to a stifling zone defense that made it increasingly difficult for the Trojans' offense to find any success. ‘SC, which started off the game firing on all cylinders, held a commanding 25-6 lead at the 10:36 mark. Using a fluid offense, placing an emphasis on feeding the ball to big men Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic while allowing Dwight Lewis to see open looks from the outside, the Trojans appeared poised to cruise to a relatively easy home victory.

However, over the next thirty minutes, the Trojans' shooting suddenly went stone cold, especially when facing a tough Idaho State 2-3 defense, and as a result, the Trojans were outscored by the Bengals 47-34 over the remaining portion of the game. Not exactly a pretty showing.

Yes, there were some positives, but Friday night's performance summed up everything that is presently wrong with this basketball team. Despite the fact they have already played in eight games, the Trojans continue to be hindered by some bad tendencies.

1.) Turnovers: Coming into tonight's game the Trojans were second to last in the Pac-10 in turnovers per-game average, and dead last in assist-to-turnover ratio. Despite two additional days of practice, nothing appeared drastically different against Idaho State. No, there weren't 26 turnovers, but an assist to turnover ratio of 13:17 is not a particularly comforting sign either. At one point, they even had a turnover on seven consecutive possessions, which clearly indicates that this is a lingering issue for this team.

2.) Free Throwing: The problem with the Trojans' dismal shooting from the charity stripe is the fact that it isn't just one player holding down the team's free throw shooting percentage. Alex Stepheson went 0-for-3 from the foul line, Marcus Johnson went 2-for-6, and Nikola Vucevic 2-for-4. A night where they shoot 56% collectively on 25 free throw attempts can be rather frustrating.

3.) Vucevic's lack of shot attempts: Despite the fact that he is presently the team's leading scorer, I find it incredibly strange that this team does not get their starting power forward the ball more often in the low post. Kid Euro, who is shooting 55% from the field, had just six shot attempts, which is incredibly low especially when compared to Marcus Johnson's 12 shots. Not only did he have so few field goal attempts, but he rarely touched the ball even when Idaho State utilized a zone defense.  There is no reason this should occur, especially when you have a player with his skill set.

4.) Depth or lack thereof: At the end of the day, the Trojans' lack of depth will eventually serve as their Achilles' heel. Using just eight players (2 of whom, Davis Rozitis and Evan Smith, played a combined total of 4 minutes) makes it incredibly tough down the stretch. Lewis, Stepheson, and Vucevic, were all visibly tired during the winding minutes of the second half, and the mere fact that they were able to finish the game is testament to a good offseason conditioning program and overall effort.

Yet, while these remain crucial problems for the Trojans, Kevin O'Neill's emphasis on tough defense gives Trojan fans such as myself hope for the future.  Once again the Trojans held a team to a field goal shooting percentage that was less than their season average. Idaho State shot just 35% on the night, when they are accustomed to shooting around 43%. The mere fact that they make it incredibly challenging for the opposition to score or receive second chance scoring opportunities keeps the team in the game even when the offense struggles - which is happening quite frequently. If they can possibly shore up some of the lingering problems, then it remains possible that they won't just be a .500 team this season.  

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