Tennessee Win Could Serve as Turning Point of the Season

Anybody who's been around this blog for the past few months knows that I can't stand hyperboles. I'm generally hesitant to label things as the "best ever" or the "worst ever." It doesn't serve anybody any good. In sports, it's generally hard to quantity stuff, and while it may be popular amongst sports talk radio hosts, I'm not going to promote that kind of pointless banter. There are too many variables, and in a sense, it's pretty much a moot point. Wow, I sound full of myself.

With that said, however, I'm going to break my own rule, with the risk of sounding misinformed and even more like a homer. But USC's 65-64 win over Tennessee Tuesday night (hold your breath) may be the cornerstone of an NCAA Tournament run in March. Again, hold your breath.

But listen closely. Of the Pac-10's four wins over ranked opponents thus far, two of them have been secured by USC. Granted, the conference will likely send just one or two teams to the postseason, but simply based on quality wins, you have to figure 'SC has a shot to either earn an automatic bid or an at-large berth. With a win Thursday against Lehigh, a .500 mark in conference play and just one "W" in the Pac-10 tournament, USC would finish the season with 18 wins - two against top-25 teams out of conference. That's not a bad resume, and considering they went 8-10 in conference a year ago, anywhere from 9-12 wins, even more, is absolutely on the radar in 2011.

As for the game, though, USC could have fallen apart. Following a heartbreaking 70-68 loss to Kansas Saturday, the Trojans could have come out flat and laid an egg, falling back to .500 overall. The season, in essence, would be lost with the only hope for a Tournament bid to come by way of a Pac-10 Tournament title.

But instead, USC is now winners of three of its last four games, 1-1 with Jio Fontan in the lineup, as it returns to Los Angeles for a four-game home stretch before a trip to face the Oregon schools.

Tuesday, the Trojans got production from a multitude of players, as Jio Fontan (13) Bryce Jones (11), Maurice Jones (15) and Alex Stepheson (13) all finished in double figures.

But even more important than offensive statistics, USC finished down the stretch, played good defense, made clutch baskets, and pardon the cliche, "found a way to win."

On Saturday, they nearly ended the nation's longest homecourt winning streak in Lawrence, but were unable to preserve the lead down the stretch, falling to Kansas when a defensive blunder by Maurice Jones allowed Josh Selby to shoot an uncontested 3-pointer to seal the victory. This time, however, they were able to hold on and hand the Volunteers their third consecutive loss. Per Baxter Holmes of the LA Times:

Guard Tobias Harris missed a deep three-point jumper on a play that began with 3.5 seconds left to deliver USC a 65-64 win, its second straight upset against Tennessee (7-3) and first road win in seven attempts dating to last season.

"We finally closed out a game," O'Neill said.

In three of USC's five losses this year, Bradley, Nebraska and most recently Kansas, the youthful Trojans lost by a combined score of five points. To say they couldn't capitalize on late-second half leads would be an understatement, but strangely enough, they did just that Tuesday - holding the Volunteers to just two points in the final two minutes to preserve a narrow one-point victory.

This isn't an offensive-oriented team, despite its 43 percent shooting Tuesday night. It never has and it never will. Yet, O'Neill has been criticized at various points during this season for a stagnant offense, particularly when facing a zone defense. Much of that criticism is deserved, but keep a few things in mind. This team, with a rotation of just seven-to-eight players, is not necessarily naturally gifted in terms of offense. How many of those guys are talented enough to score all by themselves, create their own shot. Fontan? Maybe Maurice Jones?

The point remains: this team doesn't have the personnel to be offensive-oriented and there are going to be side-effects as a result. That was evident down the stretch against Kansas when they turned the ball over and attempted some errant shots within the final minutes. That's what you get with a young, and in some cases, offensively inept group. Part of it is coaching, but that's not all of it.

With that said, however, this group does one incredibly valuable: defense, holding UT to under 40 percent shooting and forcing a plethora of turnovers. Per Shotgun Spratling of Neon Tommy:

USC forced 18 Tennessee turnovers, including six from Tennessee's struggling star, Scotty Hopson. Hopson shot only 1-of-5 from the floor for his third consecutive off-night. When he wasn't missing shots, Hopson was turning the ball over. He was called for four traveling violations -- three in the first half.

Defense is this team's calling card. They've shut down Jordan Hamilton and now Hopson. To a certain extent, it's time to start glossing over the team's offensive weakness, and realize that this isn't a perfect team by any stretch. But a perfect team isn't going to win the Pac-10 this year. USC has holes that won't be filled in 2010-2011, but defense alone, could push USC, which went 5-1 against conference favorites Arizona, UCLA and Washington a year ago, to the top of the Pac-10 this spring.

Forewarning: If this team loses to Lehigh Dec. 23 at home, most of what I just typed is completely irrelevant.

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