I have been thinking about this question quite a bit over the ever since last nights win over Pepperdine. Although the Trojans won 91-77, it was probably the most frustrating double digit win I have ever seen. For those of you who did not get to watch, USC ran out to an early lead and absolutely dominated the Waves in the first half. It honestly looked like they were playing a high school team as SC was getting to the basket at will and the defense was absolutely stifling. When the players headed into the locker room they were up 54-31.
But things took a turn for the worse in the 2nd half. Pepperdine caught fire and USC became especially sloppy in their play, and somehow the game came within five points. Well, I really shouldn't say somehow, because I know exactly what happened. Discounting two late game misses, Pepperdine hit on 7 of 10 shots from behind the arc, and SC notched double digits in turnovers. Frankly, there is no reason Pepperdine should have been in that game. A 1-8 team (1-9 now) that is behind by 20+ points at the half should not even have the motivation to come back, let alone the talent or ability.
But this is exactly the same thing we saw against Seton Hall. USC was up 43-28 at the half, but came out of the locker room completely flat on offense with no spark on defense. Of course SC lost that game in the closing minutes by two points. A similar situation, combined with foul trouble for Taj, did the team in against Missouri where a double digit first half lead was quickly erased at the end of the first and beginning of the second half. I really thought the team had turned the corner after a gutty win over USF and a tough loss 72-71 against current #4 Oklahoma, but I guess that just isn't the case.
If USC wants to be the contenders most expected them to be this season, then they need to improve significantly in a few key areas. Daniel Hackett needs to take better care of the ball and be a bit more agressive in taking the ball into the paint as he is one of the teams better players at getting to the free throw line and the best free throw shooter. In addition, Demar Derozan needs to step up his game and attack the rim. He is settling too much for the pull up jumper and still looks uncomfortable at times on the court. Most importantly though, the team needs more help from the bench. I realize that its Donte Smith's first year, but he is just not living up to the "best juco PG in country" billing he received in the preseason. Also, it seems like Keith Wilkinson has regressed for whatever reason after showing some flashes last season.
Despite all of this, there are still a lot of positives to build off. Taj Gibson is playing great, and he may be the best in the paint player in the Pac 10 thanks to his excellent offensive and defensive rebounding and the fact that he is one of the best shot blockers in the country. Dwight Lewis has also developed nicely and has become a much better scorer, something the team really needed. And despite Hacketts turnovers, he is actually leading the Pac 10 in assists by a wide margin and he has a very solid all around game. Leonard Washington has also been surprisingly good, so good that his pairing with Gibson gives SC the best starting front court in the Pac 10. And thankfully the the recently cleared Nikola Vucevic looked solid in his first minutes of play, and soon to be eligible Marcus Johnson will provide a nice spark off of the bench.
Floyd is a very experienced coach and I know that he is completely capable of fixing many of the aforementioned problems, but conference play is just around the corner. USC has the benefit of a nice warmup against Oregon St and Oregon on the road, but then they face ucla at home. There is no doubt in my mind that USC has a great team in there somehwere among the current crop of players, but time is running out for that team to come to the surface. Let's hope that the Trojans can get straightened out against this final OOC stretch against NDSU, Gerogia Teach, and Oral Roberts.