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Cal Men’s Basketball vs. USC: Preview

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Can the Bears split the road trip?

Ivan Rabb and the Bears look to improve to 2-2 in conference play.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

10-5 Cal basketball heads to the Galen Center in Los Angeles to face Andy Enfield’s 15-1 USC Trojans. USC is ranked #25 in the AP poll, although Ken Pomeroy (kenpom.com) places them #49 which is actually two slots behind the Bears. The Trojans suffered their first defeat at Oregon on New Year’s Day, but the data suggest they’ve been a bit fortunate to win all of the rest. The Trojans left little doubt on Thursday against Stanford in coming away with a 72-56 victory, which was #100 in Enfield’s career.

I’ve visited the Galen Center thrice since it opened, and Cal has compiled a 2-1 record against the Trojans in those games. USC shed its reputation as a recent doormat last season when they reached the NCAA tournament. The two-game trip to LA certainly looks more difficult when they’re a formidable opponent. After Cal’s 81-71 loss to title contender UCLA, this could be an important contest in determining the Bears’ postseason fate. With Kameron Rooks playing just one minute in his return from injury, it’s likely that Kingsley Okoroh will get major minutes once more.

A lot of weight has been placed on the shoulders of Charlie Moore. While he has exceeded my expectations as a freshman, Moore has also struggled shooting the ball in conference play even though he scored 13 on Thursday. This would be a nice time for a true bounce-back showing.

Sophomore big man Bennie Boatwright was off to a nice start for the Trojans before suffering a severe knee sprain in December. He’ll miss this contest and at least a couple more weeks of action. I’ve profiled the rest of their key players below.

Projected lineup

G Elijah Stewart - 6’5” Jr. - Slightly less effective from the perimeter compared to last season, but a team leader all the same. Good interior defender and improved rebounder. Leading the team in scoring is an added bonus.

G Jordan McLaughlin - 6’1” Jr. - The Trojans’ top point guard likes getting his points at the free-throw line, which is a big reason why he usually scores in double digits. He has made major contributions throughout his career to the point that you might refer to USC as The McLaughlin Group. After all, he scored 12 per contest even as a freshman.

G Shaqquan Aaron - 6’7” So. - He’s in a scoring funk of late and 5 for his last 28 from the field after a stellar start to the campaign. He gave way to Nick Rakocevic to start Thursday’s tilt but did get bench minutes and could get back in against the Bears.

G De’Anthony Melton - 6’4” Fr. - An impressive young player on both ends of the court. He has blocked at least one shot in ten consecutive games and leads the team in steals. Melton has managed double digit points on 50% shooting overall.

F Chimezie Metu - 6’11” So. - Couldn’t find the range against the Ducks, but otherwise a consistent scorer who’s unafraid to drive to the hoop. The evidence: heading into the Stanford game, his 51.8% on field goals was exactly the same as his 2015-16 conversion rate. However, Metu’s rebounding is way up this season as he leads the team with 8 per contest to go with his 13 points and 2 blocks.

Key reserves

G Jonah Mathews - 6’3” Fr. - The brother of ex-Cal forward Jordan Mathews, he made a splash by scoring 26 in an overtime victory over Wyoming. The results were uneven to start the season, but recently he has displayed an aptitude for creating offense off the dribble.

F Nick Rakocevic - 6’11” Fr. - Quietly getting the job done in small doses with his inside scoring and defense. Recently played against another unrelated dude named Rakocevic who’s on the Oregon State squad.

F Charles Buggs - 6’9” Sr. - Transferred from Minnesota after last season but is getting a lot less playing time. Somehow racked up five fouls in seven minutes versus Oregon.

Winning strategies

1. Make McLaughlin uncomfortable.

As Reggie Jackson would say, McLaughlin was the straw stirring the drink in the Trojans’ last game. Aside from a game-high 15 points, he dished out 6 assists and came away with 2 steals. Cuonzo Martin will surely make him a focal point of his defensive approach. The point guard hit just two field goals during the entire Oregon trip, so it is possible to contain him.

2. Go with the hot hand.

Grant Mullins has been excellent of late, making 10 of his last 16 three-pointers. The ASU game might have turned out very differently without his accuracy. Keeping Mullins involved again is vital, especially if the Trojans double-team Ivan Rabb.

3. Get Bird back on the horse.

Jabari Bird had something of a nightmare game at Pauley Pavilion, scoring three points and fouling out. Don’t forget that he scored no fewer than 15 in his previous four appearances. A few early touches for the senior guard could make all the difference for the team as a whole.

4. Exploit the rebounding edge.

Rabb had 20 rebounds in the UCLA game, and Cal gives up the sixth fewest offensive rebounds nationally. On the flip side, the Trojans give up offensive boards 30.2% of the time which is outside the top 200 in the country. Getting second chances and limiting those collected by USC will help the Bears succeed.

5. Convert free throws.

Make shots 2.0? It’s easy to point out and hard to control, but the Bears surely can do better than their season average of 64.5% from the charity stripe. The Trojans are 10% better in that department so far. In what’s expected to be a close game, the outcome may depend on foul shots.

Pomeroy’s FanMatch data pegs this game as the second most exciting of the entire day. While the Trojans carry a 62% chance of winning, I assume that’s mostly derived from the home-court advantage given their respective rankings in his system. It’s easy to say that Don Coleman scored most of his points against the Bruins in garbage time, but the forward could tip the balance in Cal’s favor during such a tight matchup if given the chance.

Meaningless Prediction: Cal 74, USC 71

How to follow: ESPNU on TV, KGO 810 AM on radio, TuneIn.com on radio stream, 7 PM PT on Sunday, Jan 8

Go Bears!