1. What are USC's realistic goals for the rest of the season?
Realistic or not, the players still think they have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. That might take a championship run in the Pac-12 Tournament in Vegas, but then again, the Trojans are playing really well right now. If they can somehow continue their current four-game winning streak and finish the regular season strong (it would probably take a 5-1 finish) and win a couple games in Vegas, then maybe they're back on the bubble?
That's a ton of if's and the schedule isn't favorable as USC still plays UCLA and both Arizona schools after Saturday's tilt at Cal. However, those three games will be at home at Galen Center. USC's main focus is getting into the Pac-12's top four to earn a conference tournament first round bye and then trying to make a run for the automatic bid. That's more realistic, but who expected the Trojans to be competing in the top half of conference when they were 4-8 with back-to-back losses to UC Irvine and Georgia.
2. How big was that win over UCLA at Pauley? USC is one of 8 teams within 2 games of the first place (along with Cal and bunch of others). Do you believe they have a shot at the conference title?
In Cantu We Trust.
You could see by the player's reactions the win at Pauley was huge for them, especially after blowing a big lead and having to win in overtime. The teams are constructed so differently as well. UCLA brought in a flashy recruiting class full of high-profile players that was supposed to return them to the Bruins of yesteryear while Galen Center became the island of misfit toys. The USC squad is a bunch of second-chancers thrown together by a hard-nosed coach that wouldn't let them express themselves on the basketball court. But since Bob Cantu has taken over, USC is playing carefree and the results have manifested.
With no one running away with the conference and USC playing its best ball of the season, the Trojans could make a run at the conference title. The schedule will be tough, but the players have seemed to adopt a 'Why not?' attitude. They are having fun and when you are having fun, you play well.
3. Cal's victory over USC at Galen earlier this season came down to the wire. How has the USC team changed (injuries? increase/decrease role?) since the first week of conference play?
USC is a completely different squad now, for better or worse. The offense has improved as Cantu has emphasized pushing the ball and taking open shots even if it's early in the shot clock. The defensive intensity isn't the same as it was under Kevin O'Neill, but Jio Fontan has taken it upon himself to try to shut down the opposing team's top wing each game.
In the first matchup, USC's instant offense, JT Terrell, was in O'Neill's doghouse and didn't even play. He's now returned to being one of the team's top threats and has been key in USC's four-game winning streak. The Trojans have also suddenly become a solid free throw shooting team (81.9 percent in last four games), which was an issue against Cal (8 for 18).
4. Who is the #1 player on offense. How would you characterize your offense?
USC's offensive scoring has been pretty balanced since Cantu took over. There are routinely three or four guys in double digits. That all starts with senior point guard Jio Fontan. The offense goes as Fontan goes. His dribble penetration often sets up everything for everyone else.
Eric Wise is the leading scorer and a matchup issue at 6-foor-6. He's a tweener that is too big for most 3s but quick enough to take 4s out on the perimeter. Depending on who is guarding him, USC will try to get him isolations, particularly on the left side of the floor where he enjoys to work.
USC Men's Basketball - Highlights Against Stanford (1/3/13) (via USCAthletics)
5. Who is the #1 player on D. What type of D do you like to play?
USC is almost strictly a man-to-man team. Fontan is the top perimeter defender. In the first matchup, he pretty much took Justin Cobbs out of the game. Cobbs finished with 10 points, but on 2-of-7 shooting and at least one of those baskets came with Fontan out of the game.
But in the interior, it's the Dewayne Dedmon block party. When he stays out of foul trouble, Dedmon can be a major deterrent on the inside. His long arms and athletic ability help him alter a number of shots every game. He's averaging more than two blocks per game, including four in the first game against Cal.
6. What are the team strengths?
USC is a very athletic team and that is on display when the Trojans are able to get out in space on the fastbreak. USC also features three 7-footers, so it is able to dump the ball inside and work through the interior at times.
7. What are the team weaknesses?
With the more uptempo, carefree and creative offense has come more turnovers and some questionable shot selection. When Fontan isn't in the game, the offense has a tendency to bog down into slow-moving isolation plays for Wise.
8. What do you need to do to win the game?
After the first matchup, O'Neill said, "When you shoot 40 percent from the field, 18 percent from three and 44 percent on free throws, you deserve to lose." USC has to shoot better than it did in the first contest. It also needs to continue attacking the offensive glass. But most importantly, the Trojans have to contain Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs. Crabbe put in 27 on 9-of-12 shooting last time. If USC can hold the duo under 50 percent shooting in the game, they can continue the winning streak.
9. What does Cal do in order to beat you?
Crabbe and Cobbs need to attack the basket and get USC in foul trouble. Fontan and Dedmon are prone to short first halves due to picking up early fouls. The Golden Bears also need to keep USC off the offensive glass and get back in transition. JT Terrell loves to fire up open threes in transition and if he hits a couple, he can quickly hit five or six.