Head Coach: Kevin O'Neill (195-200, 13th season)
Record: 8-6 (No. 45 KenPom ranking)
Best victory: 73-56 over No. 16 Texas at home
Worst loss: 64-63 to No. 173 Bradley
It's been a tale of two seasons for the Trojans. After a pair of cupcake wins to open the year, USC fell to both Rider and Bradley at home -- the former by 20 points. Losses to Nebraska and TCU also followed. But then the Trojans broke through with a surprise win over Texas, they nearly beat Kansas and then knocked off Tennessee on the road. With transfer Jio Fontan getting eligible before the Kansas game, this is a different squad than the one that had those bad losses early.
The defense is a little worse than last year, but the offense is dramatically improved. And it's that improvement that gives USC hope to return to the postseason after last year's sacrificial ban.
Offense: 106.8 adjusted efficiency (73rd); 50.1 eFG% (120th); 19.3 TO% (90th); 31.4 OR% (212th); 35.4 FTR (216th)
Put simply, this isn't a great offense. And while the addition of Fontan has helped, he's merely improved it from "dreadful" to "OK." The shooting is just above average, made better by the fact that their turnover rate is pretty good. The Trojans do most of their damage from inside the arc, where they score about 54 percent of their points (51.6 percent is average). If they can't score effectively inside, though, they will abandon that and shoot a fair amount of 3s -- their 3PA/FGA against UW and Tennessee were both well north of 40 percent, despite a season mark of just about 30 percent.
It would be foolish, though to look at their offensive rebounding numbers and just conclude that they stink at those things. That overall OR% is largely a function of USC sending its guards back to prevent transition baskets. Both Nikola Vucevic -- a CougCenter staff favorite -- and Alex Stepheson are excellent offensive rebounders, and if they are not adequately boxed out, they will make you pay.
Vucevic has had some big games, including 28 last night against Washington and 24 against Texas. The wildcard for the Trojans is Fontan. He's been USC's most efficient offensive player since he gained his eligibility (113.9 offensive rating).
A week ago, I would have said the Cougs should have little difficulty defending USC. Now ... well, let's just say the Trojans scare me a little.
Defense: 89.4 adjusted efficiency (28th); 46.2 eFG% (88th), 20.0 TO% (221st), 27.7 OR% (28th), 34.9 FTR (124th)
As it is for every O'Neill team, this is USC's calling card. The Trojans play a physical brand of defense that won't look to your eyes like the defenses of past Bennett teams, but it's philosophically very similar. The Trojans protect the lane above all else -- they're No. 65 nationally in 2-point percentage against -- and they are expert at preventing second chances for teams. Vucevic is especially effective within USC's system, cleaning up nearly 24 percent of opponents' misses when he's on the floor (75th nationally, 3rd Pac-10) and blocking about 5 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts (197th nationally, 5th Pac-10).
Consequently, teams shoot an above average amount of 3s against USC. Put simply, a good shooting game from the perimeter is the best way to beat the Trojans.
Overall: The Trojans are a dangerous team that took Washington to the wire last night. If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic, that just might be it: Four players -- I am not making this up -- played 40 minutes or more for USC in the overtime contest. Another played 30. Another played 24. And one more played 5. Now that's a short rotation, and it's another O'Neill trademark. He rode his big three into the ground during his one season as coach at Arizona, and did the same thing last year with limited talent at USC as the Trojans faded badly down the stretch. Although the Trojans won't want to start 0-2, there remains a decent chance a UW hangover is in the offing.