February 14, 2013 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
The Pac-12 is crazy right now. USC’s three game winning streak has vaulted them to within two games of the conference lead. ASU lost at Utah last night. That’s not a typo. Oregon has come back to the back significantly. Even Arizona, who has been ranked in the top 10 in the nation forever, hasn’t looked sharp for much of the Pac-12 season. Anyone is vulnerable, especially on the road.
While the sweep last week of the Washington schools at home was crucial, another sweep this week in the Bay Area will force people to consider USC a true contender in the Pac-12. Imagine saying that three weeks ago. It would have been lunacy. Now, USC is playing free and easy, and their talent is finally starting to come together. Stanford has won four of five and looks significantly better than when the Trojans beat them 71-69 at the Galen Center to open the conference season. Cal has won four of six, including victories at home against Oregon and on the road at Arizona their last time out. A sweep will be difficult and USC will have to be at the top of their game. Luckily right now, they are. The breakdown:
BY THE NUMBERS
- 41: USC has gone 41-49 at the free throw line during their three game winning streak. They went 8-18 in a four point home loss to Cal and 20-32 in a two point home loss to Oregon. Since then, Interim Head Coach Bob Cantu has introduced “pressure free throws” to practice and it has worked. USC is also getting to the line much more due to their aggressive play.
- 35.4: J.T. Terrell’s three point percentage since Bob Cantu took over. He hit on exactly 50 percent last week in the sweep of the Washington schools. Aside from a three point clunker (no pun intended) at Arizona, Terrell has averaged over 15 points per game under Cantu. It’s clear he’s being allowed to play through mistakes and some bad shots, and as a result his overall play has been a lot better. He didn’t look like he had fun in USC’s wins when Kevin O’Neill was in charge. Now, he’s having a lot of fun and being himself.
- 72: Points per game under Bob Cantu. The Trojans are looking to push the tempo whenever they can, finally making use of their athleticism. They have eclipsed the 70 point plateau in five of seven games. In the previous 17 contests under KO, they accomplished that same feat just four times.
- 17 and 11: Combined points and rebounds of Dewayne Dedmon and Omar Oraby in the 71-60 win over Washington. This isn’t overwhelming, but considering how badly they have struggled lately, it’s a welcome amount of production. Dedmon needs to stay out of early foul trouble and Oraby must play with more consistent energy and assertiveness in the post. USC needs these two seven-footers to show up.
- 14: Turnovers per game under Cantu. That’s the one negative of their increased up tempo play. Part of that is to be expected, but USC has occasionally been careless with the basketball. They have to value every possession and convert when they have numbers in transition. The phrase “freedom with structure” has been thrown out there a few times, and that’s exactly what USC needs to do if they want to win these tough games down the stretch. Push the ball yes, but don’t get too fancy. Keep it simple.
- UP: J.T. Terrell — As mentioned above, he is having a ton of fun right now and can score at will.
- UP: Byron Wesley — He is averaging nearly 13 points per game under Cantu and benefiting greatly from the increase in tempo. His athleticism is a natural fit on the fast break, and he’s being encouraged to attack the basket more with his slashing abilities.
- UP: Chass Bryan — After being held scoreless since January 17, a span of five games, he hit two huge second half threes against Washington when Jio Fontan was on the bench due to foul trouble. Although he doesn’t play much, he is a critical part of this team. When Fontan sits, Bryan needs to keep USC in the game. When he doesn’t try to do too much on the scoring side and instead focus on setting up his teammates, he’s been fine.
- ALSO UP: — Aaron Fuller, Jio Fontan
- DOWN: Ari Stewart — Just when he was starting to make a real contribution on both sides of the ball, Stewart went down with a broken left thumb and is out at least three weeks. His athleticism is off the charts and he provided USC with a real burst of energy off the bench. Renaldo Woolridge may get a chance to capture some of Stewart’s minutes.
- DOWN: Omar Oraby — Although he was solid against Washington as mentioned above, he hasn’t seen consistent playing time because of his lack of energy. He also doesn’t really fit with USC’s new up and down mentality. My main beef with him aside from the energy is how he doesn’t make an impact on the boards. Oraby has five rebounds in his last three games and hasn’t had more than five in one single game since he grabbed seven in the Pac-12 opener against Stanford. He had zero in the Oregon game in 18 minutes. That is completely unacceptable for a man standing at 7 feet 2 inches tall. Oraby has to get tougher and play with more of an edge down the stretch.
MVP: Eric Wise — I’m not just mentioning him because he hasn’t been mentioned yet. Wise has been rock solid since day one and been USC’s leading scorer most of the way. He’s failed to reach double figures in scoring just five times in 24 games. His versatility is what makes him so valuable. He is too quick for power forwards to guard him and too powerful for small forwards to handle. His ability to step out and knock down threes really stretches the defense. USC runs a lot of offense through him at the elbow because of this versatility and his ability to make good decisions. Wise’s story is really a microcosm of USC’s “second chance” squad. He was very productive at UC-Irvine, but transferred to USC because he wanted a chance to play in a big time conference with a talented team in his final season of college basketball. Right now, he’s playing with a sense of urgency (as are Fontan and Fuller) because he sees the end of the line and still wants this team to do something special.
That sense of urgency is what USC needs right now. This team had big expectations at the beginning of the season and it certainly hasn’t played out the way they thought it would so far. But they have new life. This team will look a lot different next year. They don’t want people to forget about this year’s squad too quickly. Nobody thinks they can get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but if they win their remaining seven Pac-12 regular season games, they will be in and would possibly be conference champions. Is it unlikely? Of course, but the attitude of this team right now has to be: Why not?