Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2015-16 CU vs USC Basketball Preview: The Trojans Got Good, Somehow

Tonight is an interesting scenario.  See, Colorado hasn't lost to USC since joining the conference in 2012.  A perfect 7-0, many in convincing fashion.  But, these 2016 Trojans are a different breed from those CU has faced in the days of the Pac-12.  They're better, deeper, more talented, and certainly one of the stronger teams in the league this winter.  If CU's going to earn that top-four spot, they have to win at least one this week in Los Angeles.  History says it'll be against the Trojans in the Galen Center, but can the Buffs topple the new-fab USC construct?  Well, you'll have to read the preview to find out.


Hype Music for the Evening: "Life is hard on the road" by Bang Camaro:

Unless you are a diehard Rock Band aficionado, like myself, it would surprise me to learn you have ever heard of Bang Camaro before.  A ridiculous combination of nostalgic 80s hair metal and upwards of 20 dudes singing in chorus, BC is a novelty, but a well-loved one in my collection.  This track, aptly about the difficult life on the road, is perfect for a key road trip to SoCal.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the beautifully appointed Galen Center is set for 9pm this evening.  Coverage is on ESPNU, so there's a good chance you will have something in common with the broadcasters -- neither them or you will actually be in the arena!  To hear from someone who, guaranteed, will be in Los Angeles, check out Mark Johnson and the radio call on AM 760.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

There were times last season where I openly pondered "what has to happen for this team to get a road win?"  The last meeting between Colorado and USC answered that rhetorical question: Askia Booker has to get medieval, and drop a historic amount of points.

Playing in his home town, just minutes from the courts where the human jitterbug learned the game, Ski went off for 43 to almost single-handedly drag the Buffaloes across the finish line for their first road win in eight tries (they would add another in Seattle before season's end). Colorado needed every one of those points, too, as USC was holding on for dear life on their home floor.  Locked in a war of attrition, the two teams would battle on through three overtimes and six player disqualifications, stretching nerves and rosters thin.  CU, however, had the trump card - Booker - and kept playing it at just the right moments to secure a 98-94 win.  For the first time in an otherwise miserable season the sighs uttered across BuffNation were ones of satisfied exhaustion, rather than frustration.
Ski would not be denied against the Trojans last winter. From: the BDC
There's no possible way to overstate how brilliant Ski was in this fixture last year.  It took him until the 6:28 mark of the first half to find the scoresheet, but, having finally woken up, it was game on.  He scored 10 points in just under two minutes, helping to all but erase a 10-point deficit headed into halftime.  In total, he would score 24 in regulation, powering CU to an 11-point lead midway through the second half.

About the only thing that could slow Booker down was a cheap shot from brutish USC center Nikola Jovanovic.  On a fast break with eight minutes to play in the second half, the galoot threw a shoulder and a leg into Ski, sending the point guard flying.  While he got up, and only sported a bruise after the game, the assault had its desired effect.  The spark plug was shaken, failing to score down the stretch, and committing a trio of turnovers in the immediate aftermath.  As a result, Colorado as a whole would go on a nearly 15-minute long drought without a made field goal. The refs, particularly clueless in a game marred by questionable officiating, only awarded a common foul.  Askia would have the final laugh, however.
Booker was never better than he was in those overtimes.  From:
Once into overtime, Booker began to shake off the cobwebs.  By the time the game got to the second extra period, the Scrat was ready to fully flip the switch back to 'on.'  From then till the final horn, Ski would score 17 of CU's 25 points, all without committing a single turnover.  He was everywhere - off the bounce, at the rim, on the step-back.  Hell, he even posted up a defender at one point.  It was Ski Season in all its ride-the-dragon glory, and the high has never been so good.  For the game, he finished 13-23 from the floor, 13-15 from the line, and even dished out three of Colorado's eight assists in 51 minutes of action. The performance marked the most points by a Buff in a single game since Donnie Boyce's 46 against Oklahoma State in 1994, and stands as the fourth-most ever.  We took him for granted far too often, but that was a perfect example of a player refusing to lose; it was Ski Booker in a nutshell.

It's a little unfair, but Ski's 43 overshadowed some encouraging efforts from his teammates. Down two starters, with Jaron Hopkins joining Josh Scott on the inactive list with a bum ankle, the team needed others to step up. Xavier Johnson returned to the lineup for the first time in weeks to chip in 12/5, including the game-tying three pointer in the final minute of the first overtime.  Freshman forward Tory Miller, who had been performing exceptionally well over the last few weeks, submitted his first career double-double (11/13), which featured five huge points in the final frame of overtime to supplement the Ski-splosion.  Without them, and the little efforts chipped in by the other six Buffs who saw the court, the outcome would've been completely different.
Xavier Johnson returned to the court, and played a major role in extending the action.  From: the Post
For the Trojans, they boasted their own historic offensive outputs, as Jovanovic and shooting guard Katin Reinhardt combined for 65 points.  Jovanovic bullied his way to 30/9 on 17 shots, getting most of the CU front line in foul trouble in the process.  Reinhardt went for 35, mostly on 9-18 shooting from deep.  Without Jaron Hopkins to help with defense on the perimeter, he was consistently getting loose on the wing for wide open shots, and was approaching Scott the Dick territory.  Thankfully, both fouled out, and Booker's heroics put an end to that nightmare.

The Trojans in 2015-16 - 

Here are USC's season and conference records the last four seasons:

  • 2011-12 - 6-26 (1-17)
  • 2012-13 - 14-18 (9-9)
  • 2013-14 - 11-21 (2-16)
  • 2014-15 - 12-20 (3-15)
I don't bring this up to be blithe, but the Trojans, as BuffNation has known them, were one of the sorriest programs I had ever seen.  Like, Jeff Bzdelik bad (harsh, but fair).  Hopeless and bereft of talent, Southern Cal was miles behind every peer not named Washington State, and sat as a bulging eyesore in the basement of the Conference of Champions.

But, while they had been floundering between the collapse of the Kevin O'Neill era and the start of the Andy Enfield one, they were quietly stockpiling talent behind the scenes.  Incoming freshmen and transfers sat through the losing, secretly developing into something worthwhile.  While the rest of us mocked, they prepared.  And so, when the curtain raised on the 2015-16 season, those outside of the program were in for quite the surprise.
The Trojans rising above the Shockers was the first hint that USC had improved. From:
My eyebrows were first raised Thanksgiving week, as the Trojans socked the venerable Wichita State Shockers right in the mouth for an upset 72-69 win in Orlando.  While USC would drop the next two to closeout the AdvoCare Invitational in fourth place, they wouldn't drop another in non-conference play, and entered the new year a very respectable 11-2.  Once on the same floor with Pac-12 opponents more losses came, sure, but they have more than held their own, going 7-5.  Key wins include at home against Arizona (in four overtimes), a sweep of UCLA, and an important takedown of Washington.  Overall, they now sit at 18-7, with an RPI ranking of 24, having been ranked at three separate times through the year.  A shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament, they have completely flipped the old narratives on their head, leveraging a great home court advantage (a perfect 14-0 at home) to huge gains in the W/L column. Simply: the Trojans got good in a hurry, and are a legitimate threat in the conference.

But, more than just wins, Southern Cal is playing exciting, entertaining basketball.  They race up the court on every possession, getting shots off an average of about 15 seconds after getting the ball in their hands, and score an exemplary number of points.  #2 in the conference, scoring about 81 per contest, they're averaging efficiency numbers around 1.13 points per possession. Really strong stuff. They combine a seasoned shooting touch (39% from deep) with an exuberant sense for sharing the basketball (nearly 16 assists per game) and a nose for transition (top-40 nationally in shots on the run). I'm not kidding, this is a really good offensive team, without the ugly downside of, say, the Washington Huskies.
Smiling faces have returned to the Galen Center.  From: Scout
The really interesting thing, however, is that they've paired that high-octane, explosive offense with a solid defense.  Top-50 in efficiency, they've been beyond serviceable this year in stopping opponents, only allowing about 74 points per, well in the wake of what they've been putting up on their own account.  The key has been a smothering defense of the three point line.  Pac-12 opponents have only been shooting about 31% from deep against them, easily the best mark in the conference.  Combined with an abhorrence of putting shooters on the line (under 30% free throw rate), and you can see how the Trojans can trap opponents behind a prolifically offensive eight ball.  One crack in the defensive foundation to note, however, is their rebounding numbers - 270th nationally, 8th in Pac-12 play - so this is yet another game where owning the glass would help the Buffs.

I'm not saying USC is going to win the conference or the upcoming tournament in Vegas, or anything like that, but they are a very good basketball team, easily capable of beating anyone (particularly on their home court) on any given evening. The one deep knock I have on the Trojans is youth.  They're 309th in average experience, according to KenPom.  There's not a senior to be found in their ten-man rotation, and it has shown, at times, this winter.  That just means, though, that this roster of exciting youth could have Southern Cal in position to continue their parabolic upswing in future seasons.

Star Players - 
At the top of the attack for the Trojans is a pair of point guards who love to play off of each other. Sophomore Jordan McLaughlin and junior Julian Jacobs are a dangerous mix of athleticism, scoring prowess, and distributing awareness, one that any team in the league would be happy to boast.  They each average 12 points and five assists per game, while adding in a handful or rebounds. The pair compliments each others' strengths very well, and patch the weaknesses where appropriate.  If the #TadBall dream is to have multiple point guards on the court at any one time, then USC is living it with this pair.
Jacobs has been the difference maker this season.  From: the LA Times
They each excel in different areas.  The 6-1 McLaughlin got all the headlines coming out of high school last season, becoming one of the better freshmen in the Pac-12 a year ago, but it has been the continued emergence of the 6-4 Jacobs that has really fueled this hoops renaissance in University Park. Jacobs is explosive, playing above the rim (60% of his shots are at the rim), while still acting the roll of a passing point guard admirably (leads the team in assists). McLaughlin, on the other hand, is more of the traditional distributor, with blazing speed and a deadly shooting touch thrown in (42% from deep) for kicks.  If I had to pick, I'm most scared of Jacobs, because he is a true triple-double threat, but McLaughlin is capable of carving any team up, especially a bunch like Colorado who have struggled against lead guards off the dribble.
McLaughlin can flat ball.  From:
Benefiting off the dynamic duo in the wings are forwards Katin Reinhardt and Bennie Boatwright. Reinhardt is your classic basket-case of a shooter, with the 6-6 junior as liable to go off for 35 on 9-18 shooting from three (as he did against the Buffs last season) as he is brick everything and kill Trojan possessions.  When Jacobs and McLaughlin drive, however, he stands as a very dangerous threat on the perimeter. Boatwright, a tantalizing freshman stretch-four, has been hit or miss this season, but, when he's on, can really spur the USC gameplan.  Standing at 6-10, he still takes most of his shots from behind the arc, but don't let that fool you; Boatwright can be a very capable presence in the paint.

Up front, the team is anchored by 6-11, 235 big man Nikola Jovanovic.  The galoot best remembered for dropping 30 on CU last season, along with his dirty take-out of Ski, is back for his third season in crimson and gold, and is really coming into his own.  A double-double threat, he is one of Southern Cal's best scorers, while also standing as their best individual rebounder.  His overall importance to the roster has only been emphasized as backup power forward Darion Clark has been out with a shoulder injury.
Jovanovic is becoming a really solid post player.  From:
Elsewhere, expect to see a lot of Elijah Stewart off the bench.  A great 6th man, he's a versatile wing who can do a lot of things with the basketball. Reserve freshman center Chimezie Metu is an interesting prospect (top-50 block rate), but still has a ways to go in his development.  Overall, this team has six players who average double-figure scoring.  This is not the kind of group that you can just silence one player and coast to a win; any hole you leave open defensively is going to be exposed.

Coaching - 

I'm starting to think I may have been wrong about Andy Enfield.  I had viciously mocked the former Florida Gulf Coast coach each of the previous two seasons, only to realize a little too late that he might just have a notion on how to rebuild the once-sinking Trojan ship. "Dunk City" has finally come to Los Angeles, and, as promised, it is entertaining as hell.
Maybe Enfield isn't simply a flash-in-the-pan beneficiary of a fluke fortnight of hoops.  From: USA Today.
The key will be how this group continues to project into next season.  On any other roster, I might be able to pass this off as a flash in the pan, but with all those returners headed into 2016-17, USC should, deservedly, be at the top of many prognosticators lists for Pac-12 title contenders.  This is not something anyone should welcome, by the way.  While they're putting an entertaining product on the court, a second recruiting draw in the western Mecca of hoops is a dangerous proposition.  USC has long been the 'sleeping giant' of legend; if the slumbering beast is waking up, the Conference of Champions only just got tougher.

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 10-3. Against the spread: 7-5-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1 pt/gm)

Lines as of Tuesday @ 8pm - CU +9, O/U 151

CU's saving grace here may be a combination of the rebounding numbers (USC is pedestrian in protecting the defensive glass) and the Trojans' low turnover rate (261st nationally, 9th in Pac-12 play). If you allow Colorado to not only control the glass, but also keep the basketball, you're playing with fire.

Unfortunately, the turnovers will come.  Of course they will.  And every silly mistake with the rock will only fuel the Southern Cal attack, allowing them to speed progressively faster and faster.  Throw in their defense of the three point arc and the inability of opponents to get to the line with any consistency, and I really struggle to see where the Buffs will get their points.  Overall, I expect something more akin to the Oregon game in Eugene than anything joyous; give me USC going away. Blech.

USC 82 - CU 70


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