The at-large tournament hopes are officially on the respirator. Saturday's disappointing 68-66 loss at the hands of Cal now drops USC to 3-4 in Pac-10 play and just 11-9 overall on the year. Provided a late surge, which involves winning a majority of their remaining games, it's tough to imagine USC finding a way to get to the Big Dance. It has to win the majority of its home games and it's failed to do so thus far in conference playing, falling to just 3-2 at Galen Center. The danger is that despite playing five of its first seven conference games in Los Angeles, 'SC is under -500.
As for tonight's matchup, it wasn't anything knew for the Trojans. They faced a zone defense for long stretches of the game and struggled. At no point this season, have they shown the ability to break down a zone. Every time they see one, they appear confused, baffled and utterly hopeless.
They need help, and it's tough not to fault coaching. This team isn't simply not making shots. They lack any structure against the zone. Ball reversal is slow. In terms of offensive sets, the starting five seems unsure of itself. Granted, they're utilizing a freshman point guard, but experienced guys like Jio Fontan and Marcus Simmons appear clueless.
Cal isn't a particularly great team. They're young and are still learning, yet came away with the win much to 'SC's ineptitude on certain levels. Nikola Vucevic, considered a potential lottery pick, was held to six points. Similarly, Jio Fontan finished with eight points.
In some respects, the sole reason USC was in this one was credit to strong play from Donte Smith, who finished with 24 points after connecting on eight 3-pointers - one shy of the school record. Smith single-handily kept this team alive in the second half.
Sadly, 'SC was outplayed and failed to get much offensive production outside of Smith. Not much more to it. They can't beat a zone. That was the case last season, and it's the case now.
Granted, they still had a chance to win at the buzzer before Fontan's 3-pointer barely hit rim. But watching Cal close the first half on a 19-4 run was pretty damaging to the team's hopes. No question depth is still an issue, but changes need to be made offensively if they're going to keep this season from spinning out of control.