USC has been an average-ish team over the last few years. They're always right on the wrong side of the bubble come March, meaning that they end up in the WNIT each year, if they decide to accept the invitation.
Logically speaking, the Bears shouldn't be in much danger tonight. The Bears are at home. USC has had a rough season. And this is possibly the best Cal team ever, coming off a validating, confidence boosting win over Stanford.
Then why is it that I'm terrified?
Well, in part because USC has given Cal all kinds of fits. Most notably, USC beat Cal in the 2009 Pac-10 tournament when an apparent miracle Ashley Walker buzzer beater was disallowed, then stole a heartbreaker in overtime when the Bears appeared to have the game wrapped up. But it goes beyond the close, what-could-have-been losses. USC gave Cal their only blowout loss to a non-elite team last year, and the Bears have lost five of seven to the Trojans.
It's also worth noting that USC has looked much better in Pac-12 play. After starting the season 3-8, including a stunning 34 point loss to San Diego State, USC has turned it around with 4 straight conference wins, and USC's bevy of highly recruited freshmen appear to be turning the corner.
Now, to be fair, USC beat four Pac-12 teams that are significantly less talented than Cal by an average margin of about 4 points per game. They haven't beaten any of the Pac-12's four ranked teams yet. Every available statistical measure of team performance would indicate that Cal is a heavy, heavy favorite.
But fandom isn't meant to be logical, is it?
Players to Watch
Cassie Harberts - Poor Harberts gets lost in the Pac-12 post shuffle - When you've got a conference that's been full of Ogwumikes and Brandons and Walkers, it's tough to get recognition. But she's 3rd in the conference in scoring at 17.9/game, and with plenty of rebounding and shot-blocking ability to spare. But what better way to prepare for a team that relies on volume scoring from one very talented post-player than two games against Chiney Ogwumike and Stanford?
Ariya Crook - If you haven't blocked it out of your memory, Crook scored 21 against Cal, including the final 11 points that turned what seemed to be a sure Cal win into bitter defeat. Crook is now a sophomore and USC's starting point guard, but she hasn't taken necessarily used that stunning performance against Cal as a platform to greater heights.
Crook is a 3 point gunner, and when her jumper is falling she can go nuts. Three times this year she's hit five or more 3 pointers in a game. But when her shot isn't falling, she can struggle to have an impact on the game as a distributor. She actually has more turnovers than assists and she shoots better from behind the arc than inside it. Can Cal get revenge by taking away her strengths?
Keys to the game
Hound Harberts like she's an Ogwumike. It's not like Harberts is stylistically identical or anything - she shoot more jumpers than Chiney, for one - but the concept is the same. USC's 3rd leading scorer only averages 6.3 points/game. If Harberts doesn't reach 20 points it's hard to see USC winning. If that means Reshanda Gray focuses her efforts on the defensive end, so be it.
Be prepared for different types of ball screens. If there's one thing that USC has used effectively of late against Cal, it's a series of screens designed to create open 3 pointers for their guards. Ashley Corral, the Gilbreaths, and now Ariya Crook have all used the strategy to good effect. USC went a combined 12-23 from behind the arc last year, and it was a major factor in both Trojan wins. I don't know if Cal will try to switch more, or they'll just have to do a better job of fighting around the screens, but it will be another test of Cal's improved defense this year.
Or USC could just miss all of their open looks. That would be cool too.
Take advantage of post depth: I haven't been able to find an explanation, but Christina Marinacci hasn't played in either of USC's last two games. It's entirely possible that she'll be back tonight, but if she's not that removes a veteran rebounder and scoring threat. Either way Cal should be able to control the boards like they always do, but Marinacci's absence could open up space for our bigs to operate that just wasn't there against Stanford.