January 6, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Chimezie Metu, right, reacts to Stanford drive to the rim in last year’s home tilt. (Galen Central)
PALO ALTO, CALIF. – USC looks to sweep their Bay Area swing against a suddenly competent Stanford squad Sunday night in Maples Pavilion.
Despite a 7-8 record, head coach Jerod Haase’s Cardinal notched their first big win of the season, outlasting UCLA 107-99 in two overtimes.
This is the team, however, that lost to Cal the game before, and just as that result would suggest, the Trojans should take advantage of several vulnerabilities.
As the No. 124 team per Kenpom, their third-worst offense in the conference weighs down an average defense – which makes their offensive explosion against UCLA even more surprising.
Turnovers are the main culprit, as they turn the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions. This is equally as bad as Cal, who coughed up 22 turnovers Thursday night against USC.
USC has forced 17 and 22 turnovers to pace the last two solid defensive outings.
Stanford doesn’t compensate with great shooting, as they shoot a pedestrian 50 percent from two and 35 percent from three.
On the surface, this plays exactly into the Trojans’ hands. They can continue pressing the passing lanes to force turnovers, as they have the last two games, and the over-aggressiveness shouldn’t punish them.
The Washington game showed though that even a below average shooting team can exploit USC when given the opening.
Just like the Huskies, Stanford’s offense can unexpectedly shine, as they scored 1.18 points per possession vs. UCLA by shooting 43 percent from deep and protecting the rock better.
The emergence of Jordan Usher and Nik Rakocevic as defensive stoppers needs to continue. The former nabbed four steals and generally disrupted Cal’s backcourt, and the latter neutralized their biggest threat Marcus Lee.
With Chimezie Metu fully eligible after his groin-punch suspension, Rakocevic likely relegates to a situational sixth man role.
Both will matchup with junior forward Reid Travis.
Travis stands at 6-foot-8, 245-pounds and leads the Cardinal with 20.7 points a game. He chips in seven and a half boards on average, as well. He’s incredibly high-usage, eating 28 percent of Stanford’s possessions.
Much like Lee on Thursday night, USC shouldn’t worry about Travis stretching out Metu or Rakocevic to the arc. He connects on 28 percent of his threes to complement his 57 percent mark on twos.
Their leading rebounder is senior forward Michael Humphrey at nearly nine caroms a game. He’s best at preventing second chance opportunities, ranking No. 36 nationally in defensive rebounding.
He averages 12 points a contest on the back of his 47 percent rate from three-point land.
The hero of the UCLA game was senior guard Dorian Pickens. He hit a critical long bomb in the final minutes to put away the Bruins, and finished with 26 points.
At 6-foot-5, he makes up for mediocre shooting by constantly attacking the rim. He knocks down a team-best 84 percent of his free throws.
Elijah Stewart, also at 6-foot-5, looks to limit the opportunities, as well as Usher.
Stanford, as a team, relies on the charity stripe. They average 44 free throw attempts a game, good for No. 19 in the country. Pickens heads this assault toward the basket.
The rest of the starters are freshman guard Daejon Davis and frosh wing Kezie Okpala. They each chip in 10 points per game in very different approaches.
Davis, the point guard, is their best shooter, making 41 percent of his threes and 54 percent of his twos. He would score more, since he takes up the second most possessions on the team, but he coughs it up five times per.
When he does protect the ball, he’s an efficient scorer. Andy Enfield praised how Jordan McLaughlin denied passing lanes the last two games, so his elevated defense should create points off turnovers as he guards Davis.
How Okpala scores is a mystery.
He can’t shoot, and hits under half of his free throws. He’ll sneak in a fast-break layup off a steal, force his way to the line to split some freebies, and hit a wild drive to the basket here and there.
In short, he’s incredibly inefficient, so some combination of Jonah Matthews and Usher will do fine.
When you look at Stanford’s roster, you see a poor man’s USC. They’re tall, as three starters top 6-foot-8, just like USC possesses three near seven-footers.
They allow a near identical number of threes, and use their height to affect shots in the paint.
While the Cardinal are actually technically better defensively, ranking five spots higher than the Trojans in defensive efficiency, the scales tilt back to USC on offense.
USC holds onto the basketball, and they will take advantage of Stanford’s shoddy three-point defense. As the Cardinal offense attacks inside, USC should outpace them with a bevy of deep heaves.
Stanford’s opponents drain 37 percent of their 3-pointers, ranking the Cardinal in the bottom-100 nationally in that category.
Leaving Palo Alto with a victory took on added importance Saturday afternoon, as Colorado achieved another upset as they bested No. 14 Arizona 80-77 in Boulder.
First of all, USC can’t afford any more bad losses. Losses to teams like Stanford, which find themselves outside the top-100 on RPI, will sink a tournament resume.
Secondly, with Colorado finding its groove, a once-easy early conference slate just got harder.
In short, get out of the Bay Area unscathed. No other options are acceptable.
Game starts at 7:00 PST on Fox Sports One.