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WSU vs. USC basketball: Preview and game thread

The Cougs once again have their hands full.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

WSU continues what is probably the most challenging portion of its schedule with an early evening contest against Andy Enfield’s USC Trojans, who are 19-4 overall and in pretty good shape for securing an NCAA tournament berth down the stretch.

The Cougs are coming off a 95-79 loss to UCLA and face a road trip to Utah and Colorado next week before returning home to face Arizona, so there’s a very good chance that this one at Beasley Coliseum is WSU best chance for a win before ASU comes to town in a couple of weeks.

Enfield came to Los Angeles with a reputation for wide-open basketball thanks to his success at Florida Gulf Coast, but this team has found its success playing a little slower and taking advantage of John Gasaway’s “shot volume” — the Trojans rarely turn the ball over on offense and they get a fair amount of offensive rebounds.

They’re probably going to make a few of those second chance 3-balls today that make you want to go put your head through a wall, because while they don’t shoot a ton of 3s, they’ll make you pay when they do take them, hitting them at a 37 percent clip overall.

Point guard Jordan McLaughlin is the engine of the offense, averaging nearly 14 points and a little over 5 assists. He shoots 43 percent from deep, but he’s somewhat judicious with his attempts; wing Elijah Stewart is the guy you really have to worry about, as he’s made 40 percent of his 143 shots from behind the arc.

Oh, and by the way: 6-foot-10 sophomore Bennie Boatwright just returned from injury, and he’s a threat to score on WSU’s big men from all over the floor. It will be interesting to see how much Ernie Kent tries to play Conor Clifford against USC slight-but-athletic front line.

In fact, there’s a pretty decent chance that WSU’s success inside will largely determine its effectiveness on offense.

The USC defense is driven primarily by enticing opponents into the lane by contesting 3s, then meeting them with fierce rim protection — the Trojans are 50th nationally in 2-point percentage allowed and 14th nationally in percentage of opponents’ 2s that they block. The most impressive part of this is that they rarely put opponents on the line in the process.

My guess is Clifford probably will get some easy buckets but once again be plagued by foul trouble. Expect to see a lot of Robert Franks, who is probably going to find the going pretty rough unless he can stretch the USC big men out to the arc and hit a few 3s. And Josh Hawkinson will need to be nails with his midrange jumpers. predicts this to be a 78-71 game with USC winning approximately three-fourths of the time — easily the highest probability in the next four games. Hopefully the Cougs can get one today. If not, what felt like a promising turnaround could end up with WSU at 4-10 in conference before we know it.