Ever since Dwight Powell abused the Bears for 20 points I've been slightly irrationally afraid of the various big men around the Pac-10. Derrick Williams! Matthew Bryan-Amaning!
Josh Smith Reeves Nelson! Oh my! And so far my fears have been bourne out to some extent, as all four of the previously mentioned players have gone on to big performances in defeats for Cal.
So now I get to freak out about Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson, easily the best pair of rebounders in the Pac-10 and arguably the best all-around big man duo. The 6'10'' Vucevic is easily USC's best and most consistent player, an elite defensive rebounder that draws fouls, has decent range and can block a few shots. Stepheson isn't quite the same all-around threat, but he's better on the offensive glass and might be a better interior defender.
The perimeter players aren't on the same level as Vucevic, but they are generally effective at what they do. Jio Fontan has been a solid scorer since becoming eligible as a transfer student. Donte Smith is a dangerous 3 point shooter and excellent ball handler. Maurice Jones and Marcus Simmons are on various parts of the 'limited offense, great defense' scale. Simmons in particular will be one to watch, because he will likely draw the 'Malcolm Lee' role and guard Allen Crabbe. If Crabbe can get his points anyway that would be a big victory for Cal.
And that's pretty much it. The good news is that USC, somehow, has an even shorter bench than the Bears. Only seven Trojans average more than 10 minutes per game, and one of those players just transferred out. USC is paper thin, and the Bears just happen to have the skill set that may allow them to take advantage. Let's take a closer look:
Note: The following chart concept has been blatantly stolen from mgoblog.
|Category||Cal Rank||USC Rank||Advantage|
|Cal eFG% v. USC Def eFG||154||42||U|
|Cal Def eFG% v. USC eFG%||163||110||U|
|Cal TO% v. USC Def TO%||178||220||C|
|Cal Def TO% v. USC TO%||275||101||UU|
|Cal OReb% v. USC DReb%||293||27||UUU|
|Cal DReb% v. USC OReb%||5||209||CCC|
|Cal FTR v. USC Opp FTR||22||123||CC|
|Cal Opp FTR v. USC FTR||109||265||CC|
|Cal AdjO v. USC AdjD||84||24||U|
|Cal AdjD v. USC AdjO||68||78||Even|
Difference of more than 10 places in the national rankings get a 1-letter advantage, more than 100 gets a 2-letter advantage, more than 200 gets a 3-letter advantage, etc.
You might look at that chart and think "Gee, looks pretty even to me. Why does Kenpom have 80% confidence in a USC win?" Part of that is home court advantage - Cal might be a slight favorite at Haas. But most of it is because the most important of the four factors is eFG% - how well you shoot the ball - and USC has a marginal advantage on both offense and defense in that category.
With that in mind, what do we see? We see two teams that are spectacular at defensive rebounding and horrible at offensive rebounding, which I would think is a pretty rare trait and could make for an interesting matchup. Shooting the ball will be absolutely critical for both sides because neither team can count on offensive rebounds to create 2nd chance points or turnovers to create transition baskets.
So why am I cautiously optimistic? The one thing we know is that Cal is pretty awesome at drawing fouls and getting to the line - 22nd in the nation awesome. That could be particularly important considering that USC is down to a six or seven man rotation after the transfer of Bryce Jones. Getting a couple of guys in foul trouble would count a long way towards victory. The back-up center/power forward behind Vucevic and Stepheson? He averages 3.7 minutes/game and has yet to attempt a field goal this season. Getting either Vucevic or Stepheson on the bench with fouls would force USC to go small and hopefully open up space for MSF, Kamp and Solomon to go to work.
The converse is always a danger -MSF and Kamp are both giving up inches to USC and Vucevic will get calls. But we've got an improving, 6'10'' freshman, plus Bak Bak if we need to absorb fouls. USC doesn't. So I'm humbly suggesting turning this game into a hideous, whistle plagued slug-fest.
(Did I really just spend two paragraphs discussing fouling strategy? Sometimes I hate how much refs impact basketball.)
All the reports I've heard has indicated that USC really struggles offensively against a zone defense, and Monty has certainly been willing to try anything in an effort to find the right strategy, so don't be surprised to see a 2-3 zone from the Bears for much of the game. If so, the ability for MSF, Kamp and Solomon to locate Vucevic and Stepheson and keep them off the offensive glass will be huge.
A split would mean a 3-4 run through the toughest 7 game stretch imaginable - a pretty great achievement for such a young team, and a great sign for the rest of the year. It won't be easy to break down USC's defense, but the Bears have shown the ability to move the ball and find open looks lately. Go Bears!