Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, January 26, 2012

USC Basketball Preview: On the road again

USC, by all rights, is a team the Buffs should beat. They are winless in conference play, and truly one of the worst teams in the West.  In spite of that, Vegas is still picking the lowly Trojans to upset the Buffs.  This doesn't surprise me in the least.

It's a matter of common knowledge that CU just doesn't play well away from home, away from their mile-high altitude advantage.  That knowledge, that expectation, needs to change.  The entirety of Buff Nation needs to look upon a road trip, particularly one like this against struggling opponents, as an opportunity rather than a road block.  The Buffs need to take their cue from good ole' Willie Nelson:

Home field advantage is of paramount importance in sports.  Pro teams fight all season for the right to have it in the playoffs.  In collegiate athletics, teams are paid handsomely to forfeit it.  There's no statistical doubt that it affects games in one way or another.  We may argue about why home court advantage means so much, with recent thoughts turning to subconsciously biased officiating, but that it is important in indisputable.  CU even enjoys the added benefit of high altitude acclimation when playing in the CEC.  It's just plain good to hit the court at home.

Unfortunately, the schedule cannot always keep the Buffs on the Front Range.  At some point, this team, really the entire athletic department, needs to figure out what it takes to win away from home if they ever hope to be truly successful.  Regardless of altitude, biased officiating, or crowd noise, the Buffs need to prove that the road holds no horrors.

This weekend, including the "winnable" matchup with UCLA, is a perfect opportunity to set a new level of expectations and finally begin to enjoy getting "on the road again."


The weekend romp through the City of Angels starts with the USC Trojans. Tip off from the beautifully appointed, and sparsely populated, Galen Center is set for 8:30 MT.  If you've got an extra $5 bucks lying around, you can give it to the USC athletic department for the privilege of watching a webcast of the proceedings.  If you'd rather not give those money grubbing Trojans your hard-earned money, then tune to 760AM for their, always free, broadcast.

Click below for the preview...

Opponents season so far - 

The Trojans are a train-wreck on offense; with an efficiency up near 300, this team can boast of one of the worst offenses in the nation (only Utah, sad, pathetic Utah, has a worse offensive rating in the conference).  These guys just flat-out can't shoot; their eFG% is 32.8, good for 321st in the nation.  Their raw triple-slash shooting percentages (2-point, 3-point, free-throw) are all in the bottom 5th nationally.  Hell, this team doesn't even get to the line well, having a free throw to field goal rate down near 30 (it's probably for the best since they only hit 61% of their free throws).
USC's pathetic offense was only able to scrounge up 36 in a home loss to Cal Poly.  Wow.
To compound their awfulness, they are maddeningly slow (335th in adjusted tempo) with the ball in their hands.  So slow in fact, that I can't help but wonder if they just avoid shooting since they know it's a lost cause.  They've only cracked 60 on five occasions this season; if you can crack that number against their semi-decent defense, you've basically got a win in the bag.
USC's offense is so ugly that I've included this picture of the Song Girls to cleanse your palate.
Oh, sure, USC is pretty good defensively.  They have to be with the offense in the shoddy state that it's in.  They create a lot of turnovers (7th nationally in turnover percentage), in a desperate attempt to give their offense more chances with the ball.  Additionally, they hold opponents shooting to national averages.
If not for the above-average defense, the Trojans would be beyond awful.
However, the Buffs defense has actually been statistically stronger this season, allowing only .94 points per possession, compared with USC's .96.  The numbers swing even farther into CU's favor when you only consider conference games.

So why are they so bad?  You can easily point to serious injury concerns.  With season-ending injuries to key players like Jio Fontan, Curtis Washington, and Evan Smith, the already soft USC roster is rolling through the season with a hand tied behind their back.  Add to it roster depletion from the OJ Mayo recruiting scandal, and the current USC roster is as toothless as a slug.  All told, there are only seven scholarship players available tonight on the Trojan bench.
The loss of Jio Fontan certainly didn't help, but this is simply a bad team.
Excuses aside, this is a team so far away from competing in the Pac-12 that they've allowed both Utah and Arizona to leave them behind by two games.  Winless in conference play, and with only five total wins on the season, '11-'12 is a lost cause for the Trojans.  They may be decent in the future, maybe even conference title contenders, but not this year.

Coaching - 

Coach Kevin O'Neill stepped into a big ole' mess when he left his interim position at Arizona to take over the helm at USC.  On the heels of major recruiting violations committed by predecessor (and general basketball dunce) Tim Floyd, the Trojan program was stripped of scholarships, and saddled with vacated wins.
I mostly know Coach O'Neill from his time leading Evan Eschmeyer and Northwestern to the '99 NIT.
Despite all of this, Coach O'Neill found a way to win a few games.

The well traveled O'Neill, who has had eight head coaching stints in over 30 years of coaching both pro and collegiate ball, stepped into his current position prior to the 2009 season.  After a so-so first year, he somehow sneaked the Trojans into the Tournament last season, probably at the Buffs expense.

Things have obviously not gone as well this season.  With frustration mounting, how much longer will the nomadic Coach O'Neill be leading the Men of Troy?

Star Players - 

If you look out onto the court tonight, you'll probably see Trojan guard Maurice Jones.  The 5-7 sophomore from Michigan rarely leaves the action, as he's played over 94% of available minutes on the year.  As you can imagine, since he's on the court non-stop, Jones is the team leader in points, assists, and turnovers.  He's also the only semblance of an outside threat on the roster.  If the Trojans score, it's probably involving him in some fashion.  He's scored in double-figures the past five outings.
The diminutive Jones has some game, but he has little offensive support.
Prior to last week, the player helping Jones carry the load was 6-6 junior forward Aaron Fuller.   The Arizona native provided a respectable 11/6 each night in losing efforts.  Unfortunately, he's now done for the year with a labrum tear.  This team can't catch a break.
Players keep dropping like flies.  How many Trojans will be left at the end of the season?
7-footer Dewayne Dedmon is recently recovered from an injury (shock).  With all the injury trouble, he's fighting through a foot injury that should've had him out 4-6 weeks, so that the Trojans can have someone on the court. The sophomore's size in the paint should test the Buffs a lot more than the pair of 7-footer stiffs ASU threw at CU last week.

Prediction -  

 The stats show that the Buffs should walk through tonight's game with USC.  The funny thing is, games are played on hardwood, not paper.

Anyone who's followed this program long enough knows that the Buffs lose just as easily to bad teams on the road as they do to good.  One only has to look back to last season's road results against Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Iowa State (the ISU game, particularly, cost the team a Tournament slot) to realize that road trips are never as easy as they seem.

Still, USC is awful and depleted.  I have to imagine that the Buffs have more than enough offensive potential to put the reeling Trojans to bed early.  (Just, please, stay away from the turnover....)

Vegas has this way wrong, I'll take the Buffs to not only cover, but win solidly this evening.

CU 61 - USC 51


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