|#20/19 Texas Longhorns (6-1) at USC Trojans (4-4)|
Galen Center | Los Angeles, CA | Tip: 9:30 P.M. CT | TV: FSN
In late October, the Big 12 and Pac-10 announced the end of a four-year series pitting teams from the two conferences in an annual basketball grudge match. With all of the shuffling and re-alignment going on this summer, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the two leagues parted ways. Colorado was bolting the Big 12 for the greener pastures of the soon-to-be Pac-12 Conference, while last-minute deals kept the remains of the Big 12 intact and ended Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott’s dream of a 16-team league stretching from Seattle to College Station.
During the first three years of the conference alliance, the Texas Longhorns have tallied three wins. That perfect mark includes a momentous upset, when the Longhorns secured the first-ever road victory over a No. 1 team in school history with a last-minute win at UCLA. Three years after that upset, Texas finally returns to Los Angeles, this time to face off with a struggling USC squad.
Tonight’s game at the Galen Center will be the first true road game for the Longhorns, although their two neutral-site games at Madison Square Garden had crowds that were certainly skewed in favor of the Texas opponents. USC’s home arena isn’t a loud, intimidating place to play, but one can imagine that the prospect of another USC-Texas battle — even if it isn’t on the gridiron — could fill a few more seats.
The game will also be a homecoming for sophomore Jordan Hamilton, who played his high-school ball in Los Angeles. Jordan will be looking for a breakout game, as he struggled in the last two Texas wins. Of course, for a scorer like Hamilton, “struggle” is a relative term — he still chipped in 29 points in the two games despite only hitting 32% from the field.
Kevin O’Neill wants you to read the text over there
(Photo credit: Associated Press)
By the numbers
Head coach Kevin O’Neill inherited a difficult situation when he arrived at USC, with the team mired in an investigation surrounding former Trojan O.J. Mayo. The Trojans have gone through a litany of roster changes over the past two years, but have emerged with a small, tight-knit group of players who hang their hat on in-your-shirt defense. Last year, USC was tops in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, and 2nd nationally in defensive efficiency. Trojan opponents managed just 0.849 points per possession on the year.
This season, defense is still a strength for USC. While this year’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive, the Trojans are still holding opponents to just 0.920 points in each trip down the court. A big part of their defensive success comes from limiting opponents to just one shot, as the Trojans are giving up just one offensive board in every four opportunities.
USC is also very disciplined on defense, committing very few fouls for such a solid D. The team averages just 15.5 fouls per game, which is an important number for a team that has just six players accounting for 92% of the team’s minutes.
Meet the Trojans
The USC team that takes the court tonight will be a very different one from the team that tackles the Pac-10 conference slate. That’s good news for Texas, because the Trojans will welcome Fordham transfer Jio Fontan on December 18th when the team faces Kansas. Fontan offers experience and leadership at the point, something USC is lacking at the moment.
Right now, the leadership comes from the frontcourt, where Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson anchor the team. Vucevic is averaging a double-double so far, with 16 points and 10.9 boards per game. He’s a good midrange shooter and can knock down the three, so he spreads the defense out and opens up the lane for the team’s tiny, slashing guards.
Stephenson, meanwhile, is making a big impact after transferring from North Carolina. Last season, Stephenson often found himself in foul trouble, which limited his production. This year, he’s posting 8.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a night, despite playing the entire season with a fractured bone in his left hand. The injury is limiting his offensive game to putbacks and easy lay-ins, but even that doesn’t stop him from contributing down low.
Maurice Jones isn’t afraid to drive the lane
(Photo credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press)
In the backcourt, freshman Maurice Jones is filling the void at point until the arrival of Fontan. At just 5’7″, Jones isn’t a guy who typically creates his own shot. However, the Trojans work hard setting high ball screens with Stephenson and Vucevic, so Jones is often able to speed to the rack for easy buckets.
Although Jones is only a freshman, he’s proven to be a heady point guard so far. He doesn’t press the issue when the shot isn’t there, which saves him from a lot of embarrassing blocked shots. If he’s driving the lane and the defense shuts things down, Jones has no problem backing it out and resetting the offense.
Another freshman in the starting five is Bryce Jones, a 6’5″ off guard who is second on the team with 12.8 points per game. Although he’s only made 36.6% of his threes so far this season, his three-point prowess was well-documented in high school, and he could certainly give Texas fans a headache if he gets hot from long range tonight.
Senior Marcus Simmons is taking on a larger role this season, having started all eight games so far. He’s doubled his scoring output from last year’s three points per game to more than six this season, but more importantly he is grabbing 4.5 boards a night. On a team that only has two players taller than 6’7″ earning significant minutes, the 6’6″ Simmons has to be active on the glass.
The Trojans have another senior leader coming off the bench in Donte Smith. Just 5’11”, he’s another quick guard at Coach O’Neill’s disposal, and he’s another three-point threat to compliment Bryce Jones. It’s also worth nothing that Smith is 9-of-10 at the line this year, a very impressive number on a USC team that is shooting just 64% at the line.
Garrett Jackson is the only other Trojan who has played in every game this year, although he’s averaging just 13.5 minutes a night. He was Gatorade’s Player of the Year in Oregon as a high-school senior last season, and he seems to be adjusting quickly to the college game. He’s still very thin for a college player, but he’s athletic and knows how to score inside against bigger players. He also has a smooth midrange jumper, the threat of which allows him to pump fake opponents off the floor before he slashes to the rim.
Lance Stephenson dominates the boards
(Photo credit: Chris Carlson/Associated Press)
Keys to the game
While we’ve talked about the lack of depth for Texas all season long, this Trojan team has it even worse. USC is well-known for its excellent half-court defense that pressures the ball well past the perimeter, so Texas would be well-served to push the tempo. This serves two purposes, as it wears out the Trojans’ core rotation, and gets Texas easier points in transition before the tough USC defense can get set.
In addition, Texas can exploit the lack of depth by attacking inside. Beyond Vucevic and Stephenson, there is very little experience or size on the Trojan bench. At 6’9″, freshman Curtis Washington is the only other forward with any size on Coach O’Neill’s bench, and he’s played a grand total of seven minutes in the team’s first eight games. Getting Vucevic and Stephenson in foul trouble will not only take a bite out of USC’s scoring threat, it will also give Texas an even bigger size advantage.
Finally, the Longhorns have to erase the mistakes tonight. Against Lamar, Texas played one of the sloppiest games we’ve seen in years, turning it over 23 times. The Longhorns also struggled early against Sam Houston State, coughing it up 11 times in the first half. USC’s defense is much, much better than what Texas saw against the Cardinals and Bearkats, so the Horns simply cannot afford to be that careless with the basketball tonight. Giving up possessions and easy, fast-break points is a recipe for disaster.