EUGENE OR - JANUARY 13: Head coach Kevin O'Neill of the USC Trojans has some words with an official during the second half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on January 13 2011 in Eugene Oregon. Oregon won the game 68-62. The arena is named for Matthew Knight the son of Phil Knight who is the co-founder and Chairman of Nike Inc. Matthew died at the age of 34 in a scuba diving accident. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
It's gameday for USC basketball; I'm sure you're all just stoked. Anyway, here's a quick look at the game, as we play five questions with the fine folks from California Golden Blogs. Cheers to a watchable game!
Q: So how much zone from Cal are we going to see?
A. Pretty much 100% of the time, unless Donte Smith hits another ten 3 pointers. Monty prefers a man-to-man, but this year's team is so thin that he's playing zone in an effort to keep players fresh and avoid foul trouble for Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison - three players that need to be on the floor for at least 30 minutes a game for Cal to be successful. Now, with USC's struggles against a zone defense Monty might've decided to go that route anyway. It was certainly successful in bottling up Vucevic and Stephenson earlier this year. Cal's challenge in this game and every game will be rotating around to shooters. After what Smith did last time, maybe he should throw a box and 1 at him!
Q: The last time Cal faced USC, the Trojans gave up 38 points in the second half, eventually falling at the final buzzer by two points. Kevin O'Neill-coached teams are accustomed to playing good defense, but the Bears didn't seem to have much difficulty last time. Thoughts?
A. Well, as shocking as it seems to us, Cal has turned into one of the best offensive teams in the Pac-10. Harper Kamp and Allen Crabbe have been on a tear, Brandon Smith has stabilized the point guard spot, and Jorge Gutierrez has somehow been finding ways to add 15-20 points a night lately. But what Cal does really well is draw fouls, and that's really important against a team like USC that only plays a 7 man rotation. Cal's ability to score points at the Galen Center in the 2nd half was greatly helped by foul trouble compromising the defensive effort of some USC players, particularly Vucevic. He's so important to USC that he has to be on the court, and it looked like he was playing some soft defense at times in the 2nd half to avoid his 4th or 5th foul. Keeping Vucevic, Simmons and Stephenson out of foul trouble will be absolutely critical if USC wants to win in Berkeley.
Q: Nikola Vucevic: HOW AFRAID ARE YOU?
A. Probably not as afraid as I should be. He had one of his worst games of the year against Cal earlier (editor's note: which is probably why the question wasn't that funny), so the question is if his poor play was caused by something the Bears did on defense, or was it just an off day? I'd like to think that Cal's zone really clogged the lane - Cal put three bigs into the lineup and mostly just tried to stop Vucevic from getting the ball anywhere near the basket. It's probably unrealistic to expect Cal to hold Vucevic to just 6 points on 2-8 shooting again, but I think there's a good chance that the Bears can hold him below his season averages. The question is weather or not they can do that without letting somebody else beat them.
Q: Cal obviously lost a ton of guys after last year, how are the young guys coming along?
A. It's a mixed bag. Cal lost 8 scholarship players last year for various reasons, and Monty brought in 'just' five scholarship guys and one walk on to replace them in the interest of class balance. Allen Crabbe has to be front-runner for freshman of the year in the Pac-10 if the concussion he sustained against Washington doesn't hold him out any longer. He's one of the better pure shooters I've ever seen as a freshman, and he's adding moves to his offensive game as the season goes on. He's a player we're going to build around over the next few years. Crabbe's high school teammates Richard Solomon is getting 15 minutes a night and consistenly shows flashes of the type of player we hope he can become. He's long, athletic and quick, which means he has the potential to become a real force defensively as a shot blocker. On offense his game is mostly limited to dunks put backs at this point, but his athleticism causes problems for defenses. Beyond that? Well, Gary Franklin shockingly transferred. (What's that? Something Cal fans and USC fans can comiserate over? Awkward!) Alex Rossi is out for the year with a groin injury. And Emerson Murray is getting limited minutes mostly because of Franklin's transfer. There's also walk-on Jeff Powers, who came out of nowhere to get a start after Crabbe's concussion . . . and then played 31 minutes and scored 14 points. Considering that he had only played 24 total minutes over the entire season in blow outs, we're not quite sure what to make of it yet. But you might see him for 10-15 minutes on Thursday, so be on the lookout.
Q: Hass Pavilion has never been kind to USC, do you anticipate the Trojans to struggle in Berkeley yet again?
A: God I hope so. Cal really needs a win. But then again, I suppose the Trojans need one just as badly. The Bears have played well at home, with just two losses - a two point loss in triple overtime to conference leaders Arizona, and a 21 point destruction to 3rd place Washington, a team that Cal matches up horribly with. And USC's only road win came over Arizona St . . . So I'm reasonably confident about this game, or at least as confident as anybody can be about a team on a three game losing streak with one of their key offensive players recovering from a concussion. If Crabbe is unable to go that's a pretty big deal - Cal looked completely out of sorts for most of the game against Washington St. without him. But if he's fine then I think you have to look at the Bears as the favorites, especially since Donte Smith had to hit 8 three pointers to keep things close in Los Angeles.