About a week or so ago, I wrote that the fact that the Trojans played such stellar defense and held their opponents to incredibly low field goal shooting percentages would enable them to be competitive against some of the nation's toughest opponents. Saturday afternoon's contest against Tennessee proved testament to that philosophy, as USC handed the Volunteers their worst loss of the Bruce Pearl era by a score of 77-55.
While I was emphatic about the idea of USC being competitive against top twenty-five caliber teams, I had no idea that this team, even with Mike Gerrity starting at point guard, was capable of knocking off a top ten ranked foe at home by twenty-two points. It just never crossed my mind.
After all, this was the same team that loss to Loyola Marymount by nearly ten points at home, recorded twenty-five turnovers against Sacramento State, and went on a seven minute scoring drought against Idaho State. How were these Trojans expected to defeat a team that was averaging over eighty points per game and had some calling for them to reach the Final Four? But it did happen Saturday afternoon in what will forever be known as the biggest win this program has seen in recent memory. Yes, past victories over UCLA and wins in the NCAA Tournament were certainly nice, but a twenty-two point home slaughter of the Bruce Pearl-led Volunteers officially puts USC on the map in the rest of the country's eyes and tells recruit that this in fact a legitimate college basketball program.
There were plenty of factors in ‘SC's upset victory, but none as important as the return of senior point guard Mike Gerrity, who starred in his first game of the season. After sitting for the team's first eight games due to eligibility issues, the UNC-Charlotte transfer shocked nearly all fans in attendance and those watching on television across the country with 12 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds.
Gerrity, who had not appeared in a game since March of 2008, even surprised Trojan headman Kevin O'Neill, who said he was "shocked at how well he played."
But it is impossible to pinpoint the impact Gerrity made just on the stat sheet alone, as his value can be seen in other aspects of the game as well. All in all, his performance proved to be indicative of the effects a true point guard can have on a team, as he suddenly transformed the Trojans from an average Pac-10 team into a contender for the conference crown overnight. No, I am not exaggerating. Over the course of the 40 minute game, Gerrity did everything a coach wants his point guard to do - direct the offense, distribute the ball to the team's playmakers, and provide leadership to some of the group's more inexperienced players. The 6'1" transfer did all that and more for Kevin O'Neill and company.
But Saturday's signature win was not solely the product of Gerrity's had work and effort. It can be attributed to a laundry list of other factors such as the team's stifling team defense and efforts on the glass.
The Trojans held a Tennessee team averaging roughly 84 points per game to 55 points, 34.5% shooting from the field, and 9.1% shooting from three-point range. Yes, the Vols certainly missed a few "gimme" baskets, but in general, ‘SC played tough defense and forced the Vols in taking their fair share of low-percentage field goals. By stacking the paint with either a zone or man-to-man defense, the Trojans caused Tennessee to become incredibly impatient and settle for long-range shots, much to the dismay of their head coach Bruce Pearl, whose sideline antics became even more vivid as the game became out of hand.
On the flip side, the Trojans proved to be much more proficient when they were in possession of the ball, attempting just 42 shots but converting 23 of those and making 28-of-35 shots from the foul line (80%). These numbers, which were significant improvements over last week's games against Sacramento State and Idaho State, helped to make up for 18 turnovers - which are still way too high for a supposed conference championship contender. Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic deserve much of the credit for the scoring inside and for that high shooting percentage as well. At the end of the day, Stepheson and Vuecevic shot a combined 13-of-18 from the field and were often the ones on the receiving end of Gerrity's game-high ten assists. By valuing each possession, the team's offensive efficiency enabled for them to maintain a comfortable lead for much of the game and eventually defeat a team particularly known for its prowess on offense.
In addition to offensive efficiency, the Trojans went on to dominate the Volunteers in other aspects of the game. In terms of rebounding, ‘SC out-rebounded the Vols 42-17. When it came to assists, ‘SC also bettered the Vols by recording 16 assists to UT's five. Just by looking at these numbers alone, it makes it incredibly difficult to imagine the Trojans losing to any conference foe provided they maintain a similar level of performance.
But before we get carried away, it is important to remember that after all, this is just one game. It is entirely possible that teams, after being able to finally watch Gerrity on film, make the proper adjustments and become more than capable of stopping ‘SC from scoring anything close to the 77 points again. However, for now, we'll take a step back, relax, and remember that our USC Trojans just recorded one of their biggest victories this decade with a twenty-two point blowout win over the nation's ninth ranked team. Not too shabby...