It's always great to earn a victory, but if USC is in fact a contender for the Pac-10 championship, there are legitimate reasons to be a little frustrated with the team's 56-50 win over Arizona. For one, they held a seventeen point lead midway through the first half, only to watch the Wildcats close the half on an 11-1 run and actually win the second half by a score of 29-28. If this Arizona team was a bit more experienced, they would have likely been able to mount a more serious comeback and actually leave Galen Center with a win in hand. But with a large group of freshman and underclassmen in addition to a first year head coach in Sean Miller, it was an insurmountable challenge for the visiting Wildcats. As a result, Kevin O'Neill and company are now able to relax and take a sigh of relief, as the Trojans are off to a 1-0 start in conference play.
Time to break this one down further...
Interior Defense - The Trojans were once again tough as nails in the paint, as Arizona had difficult scoring all night long, particularly inside. On the evening, the ‘Cats shot just 30% and were heavily contested each time they tried to get to the basket. Rarely, did they ever have an easy, uncontested shot, as they faced an aggressive Trojan defense, which also had eight blocks.
Nikola Vucevic - After 13 games this season, it is clear that Vucevic is the Trojans' most efficient player on the offensive end. The only problem is that he does not get enough shot attempts as evident by his numbers against Arizona. In 37 minutes of action, Vucevic shot the ball just six times (he made 3 of those) and rarely touched the ball on offense. But when he did get the ball in the low post, he was able to score at will, finishing with 8 points along with 10 rebounds.
Attendance - Because this game was taking place on New Year's Eve, I was worried that hardly anyone would actually show up, but much to my pleasant surprise, there was an announced crowd of 4,823. That isn't much to get too excited about, but when you factor in the lack of student attendance due to the winter break and the day of the game that really isn't a bad number. You have to think it'll be closer to 7,000 once we get into the heart of conference play.
Marcus Johnson - For the first time this season, Johnson was able to finish with double-figures in consecutive games, as the fifth year senior scored 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. That consistency will surely be counted upon, as the season progresses. Offensively, Johnson was far and away ‘SC's most aggressive player against the Wildcats, continuing to attack the basket for the entire 40 minutes as opposed to settling for jump shots. For the most part, he was the lone Trojan who was able to drive the lane and score, as nearly every other player felt compelled to launch 19-foot jump shots.
Assist-to-turnover ratio - Thursday's contest marked yet another game this season in which the Trojans recorded more turnovers than assists. On their 21 made baskets, the team had just 6 assists in comparison to 14 turnovers. It's tough to imagine USC winning conference games on the road if they post assist-to-turnover ratios of 3:7.
Offensive Rebounding - The Trojans are accustomed to dominating the opposition on the glass, but it was a different story on Thursday. With Alex Stepheson playing just 19 minutes due to foul trouble, the Trojans failed to outrebound the Wildcats and rarely got second chance points on offense, as they were forced to play with a smaller lineup for much of the game.
Mike Gerrity/The Tempo - For some strange reason, Mike Gerrity thought he was running the Phoenix Suns instead of the offensively-challenged USC Trojans. On multiple occasions, Gerrity pushed the ball in transition despite the fact that there was no apparent advantage given to him. As a result, he totaled five turnovers in his worst game of the season. Kevin O'Neill was quite frank regarding Gerrity's performance, as he told the media following the game, "Mike played awful. That was not ‘not-well.'" This isn't a run-and-gun team, Gerrity certainly knows that, so why did he insist on pushing the ball on offense so much?
Shot Selection - For the first ten minutes of the game, the Trojans thoroughly dominated the Wildcats, as they primarily took high-percentage shots from within ten feet of the basket. But as the game wore on, the team suddenly started getting complacent offensively and began launching three point shots and fade-away 18-footers. This isn't a great shooting team, so if they're going to be successful, it's essential they feed the ball to their big guys (Stepheson, Vucevic, and Washington) and look for higher-percentage shots than what they got for most of the game.
- While the Trojans' lack of depth is going to make it hard for them to maintain double-digit leads over the course of the game, if ‘SC fans are going to post comments that suggest that the Trojans are contenders in the Pac-10, then we can't continue to moan about this issue. I don't want to hear about it - no excuses.
- Stepheson needs to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble. There isn't a nimble seven footer to come off the bench and fill his presence inside.
- You have to love Kevin O'Neill's frankness after the game: "We are not an offensive juggernaut." A coach who doesn't sugarcoat; you got to love it.
Other Scores of Notes
UCLA 72 Arizona State 70
The Bruins have quietly won 4 of their past 5 games and it suddenly appears as if they may not finish last in the conference after all. However, it's way too early to start saying that the Bruins are back to their old selves, as none of those 4 victories have come against any teams of note.
Washington 76 Oregon State 70
The Huskies led by ten at halftime, but were largely outplayed by Oregon State for much of the second half. (Note: This is the same OSU team that lost to Sacramento State at home earlier in the year.)
Oregon 91 Washington State 89 (2OT)
Tajuan Porter isn't much of a traditional point guard, but he can certainly score as evident by his 31 points in leading the Ducks to a hard-fought road win in the conference opener.
Tennessee 66 Memphis 59
While it wasn't number one versus number two like 2008, it was an exciting game nonetheless as Tennessee earned its second consecutive victory since its loss to USC in mid-December.