My 78-year-old grandpa, who happens to be visiting from the midwest this past week, noted the following in the aftermath of USC's 73-67 overtime loss to Washington Wednesday night: "They're not bad, but not really that good either."
Well, that pretty much sums it up.
Against the Huskies, 'SC performed admirably in some respects, namely defense, while looking dismal in other facets of the game, namely offense.
They held a Washington team, which averaged 90.5 points per game beforehand, to just 73 on the evening and nearly under 40 percent shooting from the field. Credit coaching, scouting or whatever you choose, but with Marcus Simmons guarding a much smaller guard in the 5'9" Isaiah Thomas, the Trojans got off to a fast start, eventually building an early 16-4 lead.
That, however, was when things slowly fell apart, and apologies in advance, if you've read this script before.
Washington switched to a zone defense, and USC struggled as a result. For starters, they looked dumbfounded and incapable of exploiting any advantage. Despite several open 3-pointers, they missed a majority of them, going 5-for-21 from behind the arc on the game. Not only did they struggle in terms of shooting, but they also failed to utilize anything resembling an offense.
While Kevin O'Neill has often argued that his team's poor shooting has primarily contributed to dismal performances against zone defenses, I'd like to explore the contrary. Yes, 3-point shooting has been problematic, but when UW implemented a zone, USC not only missed shots but they also looked lost. They were confused and instead of attacking or running any sort of set plays, they appeared content at just dribbling and swinging the ball on the perimeter.
And part of the blame must to lie with coaching. At this point in his tenure, O'Neill's teams have to play better against the zone. Period. Since the beginning of last season, there have been no signs of progress. None.
But what may remain most odd about the recent stretch of games is O'Neill's substitution patterns. Towards the end of the game against Lehigh Dec. 23, O'Neill chose to keep his starters in the game despite a 20-point lead. As an unintended consequence, Fontan tweaked an ankle, which limited him against Washington, begging the question as to why O'Neill has refused to empty his bench towards the end of blowouts, especially considering this team's lack of depth.
Interestingly enough, O'Neill has shortened his rotation in the wake of Fontan's arrival despite the flexibility that he brings to the lineup. On Wednesday, Bryce Jones played just five minutes, while fellow freshman Garrett Jackson failed to log any playing time. Again, why? In big games, it appears as if O'Neill is actually more inclined to shorten his bench and simply live and die with the starters. When Nikola Vucevic drops 28 points, it's fine, but I'm not so sure it benefits the team as a whole. Four Trojans played at least 41 minutes Wednesday, and in overtime, the team's fatigue showed, particularly Stepheson. Therefore, why not spell Stepheson by playing Jackson for a few minutes in the first half? It doesn't make a ton of sense not to.
Following the team's five-game losing streak to finish last season, O'Neill attributed his team's struggles to an inability to beat a zone defense and fatigue. Yet, based on what I have seen this past week, I'm not sure anything suggests that the final stretch of 2011 will be a whole lot different.