Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014-15 USC Basketball Preview #2: Can Haz Road Win?

This is a big one tonight.  CU watched a winnable home game against Washington slip through their grasp last week, and now need a road win to make up for it... a road win which would be their first of the season (their lone win away from Boulder was the beat-down of DePaul in Honolulu). The USC Trojans, rocked on their heels by a 1-6 start to Pac-12 play, seem to be an inviting target, probably the best remaining on the schedule.  If the Buffs can't convert this one, it's hard to see where that true road cherry will get popped in 2014-15.

Tip-off from the beautifully appointed Galen Center in downtown LA is set for 7:30pm this evening (good seats still very much available). Coverage can be found on Fox Sports 1, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

For reference, my preview from the first game can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Back when playing without Josh Scott was still a shock to the system, Colorado bull-rushed a woefully inadequate USC squad, knee-capping the woe-begotten stepchildren of Dunk City 86-65 back on January 4th. The win finished off a home double over the SoCal schools, and a 2-0 start to the conference campaign; doesn't that feel like a long-ass time ago?
CU showed no mercy in a dismantling of USC.  From: the BDC
The Trojans were on their heels from the opening tip.  Playing without star point guard Jordan McLaughlin, they had neither the defensive acumen, nor the offensive wherewithal to play with Colorado at altitude.  CU pressured the ball, turning defense into offense; a style that kick-started a 14-0 run towards the end of the first half that all but killed the contest off.  For the game, the Buffs would score 20 points off of 13 USC turnovers.  Going further, I said before the game that transition would be key - Colorado got 23 points on the break, against a big fat goose egg for Southern Cal.  The game was won outside of the halfcourt.

No Jelly was no problem for the Buffs, as reserve forwards like Dustin Thomas and Tory Miller stepped up to fill the void left by the ailing Scott.  Thomas, especially, was on fire offensively, knocking down a career-high 17 points buoyed by 3-3 shooting from outside.  While he only had two rebounds, it was still his best all-around game in Black and Gold, as he also chipped in two assists and three steals against no turnovers. For the big freshman Miller, it was all about finally getting some extended run, and proving he belongs at this level. Putting up 6/4/2 against no turnovers in 12 minutes, the Baby Bull showed a wide array of advanced moves on both sides of the court.  That upswing in production has continued from both in recent weeks, as they've become vital members of the rotation
"Who, me?" Yeah, you, Dustin.  Hell of a job!  From: the BDC
Not to be outdone, the SoCal duo of Ski Booker and Xavier Johnson combined for 35/9 in slightly reduced minutes.  For Booker, it was an especially efficient showing, with the little spark plug needing only seven shots to produce his 18 points.  He also tallied seven assists against only one turnover.  XJ, in what still stands as his last fully healthy game, put in yeoman's work up front as a power forward, chipping in 17 points on 7-10 shooting. Looking back over the last couple of weeks, it's hard to remember how well the Booker/Johnson duo had been playing, but they were in cruise control in early January.  When these two were on their game, CU was at their best, and the absence of half of the pair was the knife in the gut that jumpstarted a four game losing streak.

Looking forward to this evening, I'm not sure how much of the first meeting is really applicable.  The Trojans will get McLaughlin back, and it still seems doubtful that XJ will return for CU (Josh Scott is definitely out). Add to that the fact of Colorado's continuing woes away from Boulder, and this is far from a given.

The Trojans since then - 

Other than a brief blip of good feelings against Cal three days after the game in Colorado, the Trojans have been a hot mess in conference play. If you take out that Golden Bear outlier (I can't wait to preview that trainwreck), USC has been getting whacked by an average of over 12 points per game. They've lost six of seven against league opponents, and have comfortably settled into a battle for the West's basement. Sitting at 1-6 (9-10 overall), it's easy to say that they represent CU's best chance at a road win this season.
Wait, USC beat somebody?
I still don't know what happened in that Cal game.  I understand the Bears are bad, but there's no reason they should've been blown out by this crew.  The tide seemed to turn at the line, where USC shot 85% on 20 shots, while Cal struggled to sneak over 60% on 11 attempts.  The net gain for the Trojans was only 10 points, which wouldn't have been enough to flip the win, but enough to make the proceedings interesting. Overall, Southern Cal has been pretty good at limiting trips to the charity stripe (34th nationally in FTA/FGA ratio, 3rd in the Pac-12), so it's worth noticing which way the whistles are blowing.

Since then, the Trojans have been, at times, competitive (single-digit losses to Stanford, Oregon, and Oregon State), but still mired in an offensive funk.  They're 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring (an adjusted .95 ppp in league games), and have been ice cold behind the arc (28%).  Even the return of Jordan McLaughlin hasn't helped, as all but two Trojans are under the 30% mendoza line from deep. I'll give them this, however: they're sticking to their guns, and playing fast.  Through the first four weeks of Pac-12 play, they've been the fastest team in the conference, gunning to about 68 possessions per, and keeping the ball only about 16 seconds each time.  I guess, if you're going to lose, you might as well do it quickly.
The Trojans are playing fast, but to little effect.
On defense, it hasn't been much better, as they've been allowing just shy of 1.09 points per possession. Other than their last game - against the lethargic OSU Beavers - they had given up at least 70 points in five of six contests.  It's a young, fast-paced team, so defense was never going to be a strong suit, but it's hard to expect improvement when backcourt leaders like McLauglin and Katin Reinhardt are playing phantom defense.  As a result, even with CU still missing 2/3rds of their big three, I expect Saturday's strong offensive performance to have some carryover into tonight's tilt.

Why things could be different this time - 

The return of freshman Jordan McLaughlin to the USC lineup adds some spice.  Turnovers were a key aspect of the first meeting, with Colorado pressuring the ball, and making great hay out of getting out into transition.  Just having the starter handling the rock will help, but McLaughlin is getting better every day as a distributor, and his dynamic presence will make a difference.  He's only committed two TOs over the last three ballgames (against 15 assists), so I wouldn't expect CU to be able to pounce on the passing lanes as they were in Boulder.

Individual scoring remains an issue for the flashy point, however.  He injured his shoulder in the conference opener against Utah, and his shooting percentage has only been going down since his return from a two-game absence.  To wit, on Saturday against OSU he was only 2-11 from the field.  The Buffs should be well advised to keep that trend going, and and force him into jumpers, rather than slashing cuts to the rim.  When he's actually taking a jump shot this year, he's hitting well under 30% of the time.  Keep him from the lane!
Other than venue, the return of McLaughlin is the biggest change.
The flip side is that the Buffs might still be without the services of Xavier Johnson.  While he, apparently, made the trip, missing practice two days before the game is not a good sign.  I'm not expecting him to play this evening, leaving his defense-stretching offensive game (that really put the knife to USC earlier this month) on the bench.  Yes, the Buffs have started to get comfortable with playing without the Mater Dei product, but he would be a player that the Trojans would have no answer for.

Beyond the XJ and McLaughlin factors, however, I like the chances of a repeat result (or at least a Colorado win). Katin Reinhardt just doesn't work in this offense, Wes Gordon (when invested) is flat out better than Nikola Jovanovic, and Dustin Thomas seemed to enjoy his time working opposite Darion Clark. CU just has the better pieces in this game.  I'd love to have Xavier back, and I'm sure he'd like to play in front of his home fans as many times as possible, but he may just not be needed in this one.

Prediction - 

(My record on the season: 6-3. Against the spread: 5-4. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -4.67 pts/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 8pm - CU -2.5

All that said, it's a road tilt, so expect the normal bullshit.  There will be a 5+ minute field goal drought. Someone will commit a really stupid turnover at a really inopportune time.  The team will struggle with adversity when things don't go their way.

But, and this is key, it won't be enough to overcome all that is USC basketball.  The Trojans have yet to beat Colorado in Pac-12 play, and I don't expect that to change tonight.  Give me the Buffs, and however many points Vegas wants me to swallow.  Two and a half?  Sure, whatever.

CU 68 - USC 64


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