What a time to be a Trojan!
With the monumental and potentially program-changing hiring of Lincoln Riley to lead the football program, USC athletics are on the minds of sports pundits and fans across the country. While the lauded football team is capturing headlines, the basketball squad continues to win and climb up the rankings.
Our beloved Trojans enter this week ranked 20th in the nation, and boast a perfect 6-0 record. In a strange scheduling quirk, USC will have two opportunities to earn coveted conference wins this week. USC will host Utah Wednesday night at the Galen Center, and then head up to Pullman for a Saturday showdown with the Washington State Cougars. It is strange that USC has five non-conference games sandwiched between conference games, but I am far removed from speaking about scheduling anomalies.
The Trojans' quest to a Pac-12 title begins Wednesday night with a showdown against upstart Utah. First year coach Craig Smith, has the Utes off to a 5-1 start. After starting the season 5-0, Utah dropped its first game Sunday night in a close game to in-state rival, 12th ranked BYU. The game was much closer than the 75-64 final score would indicate, as this was a five point game with five minutes left. This is a quality opponent, who has already earned a few wins against both power conference opponents (Boston College), and tournament teams from last season (Abilene Christian).
In many ways, Utah is a similar team to the Trojans. They pride themselves on versatility, tough defense and offensive efficiency. Utah is led by 7'0" Junior Center Branden Carlson. Carlson has emerged this year as the guy for the Utes, averaging nearly 16 points per game, and 7 rebounds. As efficient as the Utah native has been offensively, he has been a menace on defense as well, averaging 2.2 blocks per game. Carlson's length is a weapon, and USC must be prepared to adjust and alter rim attacks. I have mentioned in the past that my father was a member of the USC Freshman team in 1965, a team that had the distinct honor of playing against one Lew Alcindor. My dad has told me that in order to prepare for Alcindor's incredible length, they provided tennis rackets to their 7-foot center and had him use the racket to try and block shots. While I am not really comparing Branden Carlson to Lew Alcindor (who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), USC will need to add a bit of extra arc to interior shots. This will be the case for everyone from Ethan Anderson all the way up to Chevez Goodwin.
Utah has dealt with some injuries in the early part of the season, so their starting lineup has shifted some game-to-game. If everyone is healthy and available, expect Carlson to be joined by David Jenkins Jr., Rollie Worster, Marco Anthony, Riley Batting. On the perimeter, Jenkins is the Ute's biggest weapon. The Senior Guard is averaging 14 points per game, but just one assist. As his stats will indicate, Jenkins is a score first guard, who works well off the ball. Jenkins is the best shooter on Utah, converting over 40% of his three pointers on the season. He is capable of creating on his own, although he is most dangerous when he can simply catch and shoot.
Anthony is a bit of a wild card, he is expected to play against USC, after missing the BYU game with an injured ankle. Anthony is the Ute's leading rebounder, pulling down almost nine boards per game. Anthony stands 6'5" but plays a critical role in Utah's rebounding and transition game. Like many of his USC counterparts, Anthony can grab a rebound and start the break instantly.
Rollie Worster is the main facilitator for the Utah, and does the majority of his damage in his penetrate and kick game. Jenkins is a frequent recipient of Worster's creativity, and USC will need to stay with the 6'4" guard and resist the urge to crowd. Riley Battin rounds out the starting five with good size and strength. Battin is 6'9" and will have the primary matchup on Isaiah Mobley. The two have played against each other in every phase of basketball, and know each other's style well. Mobley has the athletic advantage over Battin, but familiarity may aid the LA native in his return trip.
Utah is an not afraid to make the extra pass, and will work the shot clock until it finds a good shot. USC must be prepared to defend for the entirety of the shot clock if it wants to improve to 7-0.
How does USC fair against a true center? Carlson will be the toughest interior player that USC has faced thus far. Carlson will be the biggest man on the court, and will use every inch of his extended wing span to try and impact this game. Despite Carlson's impact on the defensive end, do not expect USC to change it's game plan much. Quick and effective ball movement can easily neutralize a shot blocker. Andy will work Isaiah to the free throw line and have him play an interior-point role, where he can either drive inside, or, as we have seen many times so far this year, dish down to Goodwin/Morgan for a dunk. Carlson cannot block a powerful dunk, and USC will be well aware of this!
How does Boogie respond? After being an offensive juggernaut in the first 5 games, Boogie Ellis had by far his worst game as a Trojan, only scoring two points against SDSU. Neither Ellis nor Enfield seemed overly concerned about the low production, and I believe Boogie will come out with some fire and look to get on the board early and often. Ellis has shown remarkable improvement on the defensive end, and his ability to rebound and run, should pay dividends in this game. USC should be able to dominate the transition game, shuttling fresh legs with unique skills (Agbonkpolo/Anderson, White, Dixon-Waters).
Utah is a talented team, and Craig Smith's team is going to win a fair number of conference games, I just do not believe this will be one of them. Factoring in USC playing in front of what I am sure will be a buzzing Galen Center crowd, USC should pull away in this one.
I like USC by 12-15, with a huge game from Ellis. The Trojan defense can overwhelm and create easy opportunities, and Ellis has shown a propensity for steal and scores!
Lastly, I have been asked recently by some readers if I will ever predict a USC loss. To be honest, I am not sure, I am after all, unabashedly biased. But in reality, there are challenging games ahead (road trips to Arizona, UCLA, etc.), but this team is certainly capable of competing with anyone on its schedule, and until the product on the court falters, this team has my full confidence and support!
Welcome Coach Riley and most importantly...Fight On!