After a frustrating road trip in which the Trojans suffered embarrassing defeats at the hands of both Texas and Georgia Tech, the concept of returning to Los Angeles to face a sub-.500 team from the Big Sky conference seemed more than appealing. Placed in an ideal setting, this was the type of game in which ‘SC needed to come out with a bang, showcasing its offensive prowess as well as its defensive toughness. Unfortunately, only one of those was accomplished in the team's 51-36 victory over the visiting Sacramento State Hornets.
While the drawbacks of Tuesday night's performance were quite noticeable, it remains incredibly important to note that this inexperienced team took some small, yet significant steps in the right direction. Most importantly, their senior leader and team captain ers/29049/Dwight_Lewis" class="sbn-auto-link">Dwight Lewis bounced back from a dismal outing against Georgia Tech (0 points in 6 minutes) by scoring 16 points on 5-for-12 shooting in 38 minutes of action. It wasn't his best game by a long shot, but after being benched by head coach Kevin O'Neill on Saturday, it was more than refreshing to see Lewis playing like his usual self.
If Lewis is incapable of scoring in double figures on a consistent basis, then this team has absolutely no chance of finishing in the upper half of the Pac-10 this winter. It's tough to put so much pressure on one guy, but when you lose half your team to the professional ranks and your recruiting class vanishes out of thin air, there is only so much you can do. With a rotation of just 7 or 8 guys, somebody has to provide a significant percentage of the scoring output, and that guy has to be Lewis.
But what will make most ‘SC fans enthusiastic about the 2009-2010 Trojans was the team's strong inside presence, which completely dominated a physically inferior Hornets team. But don't get me wrong - Sacramento State is certainly a respectable opponent. They aren't an intimidating foe (see: losses to Idaho, UC Riverside, and Weber State). But they did defeat the Pac-10's Oregon State Beavers after leading by 22 points at halftime so they aren't a total pushover either. Still, the Trojans made them look like a division-two team with their dominating interior defense. When the final whistle blew, the Trojans had 12 blocks (7 by starting center Alex Stepheson) and 49 total rebounds. In comparison Sacramento State grabbed just 29 boards and had 0 blocked shots.
The combination of Stepheson and sophomore forward Nikola Vucevic made it nearly impossible on the Hornets' starting big men, Justin Eller and Michael Selling, who combined for just 3 points on 0-for-9 shooting. That isn't going to beat anybody, much less a team from the Pac-10.
But Eller and Selling weren't the only ones to struggle when it came to scoring. Collectively Sac State shot just 23% from the field and went 3-for-16 from behind the arc. But it wasn't just an "off night" for the Hornets, as much credit deserves to be doled out to the Trojan defense, which held them to far below their season averages (41% from the field and 31% from 3-point land).
While the defensive capabilities of O'Neill's bunch were certainly a site to see, the offense proved to be another story. Playing with just seven players, the Trojans continued to experience some of the same problems, which plagued them on their three-game slide last week. Free throw shooting was abysmal, as the team shot just 60% from the charity stripe. The assists were astoundingly low yet again (13), while they finished with a season high 26 turnovers. The Trojans aren't going anywhere if they collectively post an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1:2. But on a positive note, most of the blame for the low ratio doesn't need to be placed on the shoulders of junior point guard Donte Smith, who had five assists compared to just 2 turnovers - a significant improvement from a player who was averaging three turnovers per assist prior to tonight's contest.
Provided this team can shore up its lingering turnover problem and dismal free throw shooting, then it remains quite possible that they could make last week's disastrous road trip a distant memory.