Ever since the announcement on January 3rd regarding the self-imposed sanctions, which banned the Trojans from postseason play, I've been trying to tell anyone who would listen that the remaining games on USC's Pac-10 slate do carry at least some importance. No, they can't win the Pac-10 tournament, play in the NIT, or land a spot in the Big Dance, but they have the unique opportunity to do something that this program has not done in 25 years - winning an outright Pac-10 regular season title. Simply based on talent alone and the decline of the Pac-10 as a whole, there is no reason not to think that a conference crown isn't a reachable goal.
After all, the Trojans were 2-0 in the Pac-10 before the postseason ban and arguably have the most talented/experienced starting five in the conference. On paper, a championship is more than a realistic goal for this squad. That is what makes nights like Thursday night so incredibly frustrating. Plain and simply, 'SC is a better team than Oregon State. Granted their were outplayed and lost to the Beavers, but when you evaluate this one objectively, it's evident that in terms of talent, experience, and schematics, USC should be able to go on the road and beat an Oregon State team ranked last in the conference.
But that obviously wasn't the case, and if the Trojans are to sniff anything anything close to a regular season title, then they are going to need to erase nights like that from their memory banks. After all, they remain just two games removed from first place. Today's road matchup against Oregon is no cake walk, as the Ducks are coming off a possibly season changing victory over UCLA on Thursday. From the Oregonian:
Oregon had to wait nearly four weeks - five games, plus another 40 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime - for this feeling.
The Ducks beat UCLA 71-66 on Thursday night, sending the previously moribund McArthur Court into a frenzy, shedding a burdensome five-game losing streak and winning their first conference home game of the season.
"Five straight is a lot, especially considering where we came from last year,'' said Matt Humphrey, who combined with E.J. Singler to score all 16 of Oregon's points in overtime.
And one is a lot, too. This victory not only could provide a much-needed confidence boost, but it also puts Oregon back in the thick of things - as unlikely as it may seem - just a game out of third place in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Against UCLA, Oregon played well, and with USC scheduled to make an appearance at McArthur Court this afternoon, expect the Ducks to come out flying. Granted they haven't exactly been relevant nationally or even in the Pac-10 since Aaron Brooks left for the NBA, but they do have a solid coach in Ernie Kent and talented roster as well. Both are ingredients that could spell defeat for the visiting Trojans. From the LA Times:
Senior Tajuan Porter averages 12.7 points and gets most of the attention for Oregon -- and rightly so. The scrappy 5-foot-7 guard has water-bug quickness, a nasty crossover dribble and a quick-but-accurate release.
But the Ducks also have guard Malcolm Armstead (11.1 points) and bruising center Michael Dunigan (10.9 points, 5.7 rebounds).
"Those guys are all prime-time players," O'Neill said. "Some of the best in the league."
Stopping Porter will be more than a handle for the Trojans. For the past four seasons, Porter, now a senior, has been one of the most dynamic scorers in all of the Pac-10 Against heated rival Oregon State earlier in the year, he finished with 20 points, and during a road game at Washington State, he collected 31 points in route to a Ducks victory. Granted, USC has done a pretty good job defensively this season, but Porter presents a legitimate challenge. He's small, fast, quick, and presents matchup problems for a lot of teams.
But fortunately, the Trojans have a capable point guard in Mike Gerrity, who will likely present his own set of problems for Porter and company. From ESPNLosAngeles.com:
Luckily for Gerrity the transition from Floyd to Kevin O'Neil would be the first easy one of his basketball career. It took all of one practice for O'Neil to know that the fate of his makeshift team this season would rest in the experienced, yet rusty hands of Gerrity.
"I knew that we would struggle until he got eligible and it's obviously proven out that way," O'Neil said. "He's been a godsend in terms of handling the ball and making other guys on the team better. I knew immediately that we would be a different team when he stepped onto the court."
No one, however, could have expected how different. In his first college game in nearly two years, Gerrity scored 12 points and had 10 assists in a 77-55 upset of then-No. 9 Tennessee on Dec. 19 as USC rattled off eight straight wins to start the season 10-4.
"I didn't know what to expect," O'Neil said. "I knew we'd be better with him than without him but the bottom line is we won [the Tennessee game] by 22 with him [and] we would have lost by 22 without him. Their style of play would have been very hard for us."
But matchups aren't the only thing that will define today's contest against the Ducks. In addition to potentially using today's contest against the Ducks as a springboard into the second half of conference play, it will also serve as the final time the Trojans will play at the eighty-three year-old McArthur Court in Eugene. From the Times:
Tonight will be USC's last game at Oregon's famed McArthur Court. Matthew Knight Arena will open next season.
USC guard Dwight Lewis, a senior, vividly remembers his first trip to the court known as "The Pit" and "Mac Court."
He was a freshman, playing in his first Pacific 10 Conference road game. The competition was tight, back and forth late into the game.
"One of our guys was shooting free throws and they were chanting and making so much noise and I really felt it was shaking under my feet," Lewis said.
Lewis had 10 points in the game, which USC won, 84-82 -- the second in what is now a four-game winning streak at Oregon.
"It's a good atmosphere to play basketball," Lewis said.
Granted, in the big picture, this has little to do with the rest of the Trojans' season, but you have to anticipate that the Ducks will have a decidedly significant home-court advantage against 'SC when you consider the atmosphere of Mac Court. For reference, just ask UCLA. Perhaps, it won't have any serious effects on USC, as they look to head back to Los Angeles with a split, but in a wild and crazy Pac-10, who really knows?
The game thread will go up about an hour before tipoff, which is scheduled for 3:00 pm PST. In the meanwhile, check out Stafon Johnson and the rest of the USC seniors participating in the Senior Bowl, which is scheduled to begin at 1:00 pm PST.