The USC Men’s Basketball team will play its first game since December 18th after Covid-19 ran through the program causing USC to postpone or cancel 3 straight games. The #7 Trojans are healthy again and will return to Pac-12 play and a date with Cal.
The Trojans remain one of three unbeaten teams as we move into the New Year, and seems poised and capable of making a run deep into March. While I am utterly disappointed that the Arizona games were postponed, all the Trojans can do is play whoever (and whenever) they are told to.
The Golden Bears enter Thursday’s contest with a 9-5 record (2-1 in the Pac-12) and enter the game in the midst of a five game winning streak. Coach Mark Fox has Cal playing their best and most consistent basketball of the year, and are coming off a 24-point win over ASU.
Cal is led by 6’9” Forward Andre Kelly, who is averaging 14.6 points and almost 9 rebounds per game. Kelly is a throwback forward, who uses his 255 pound frame to create easy looks near the basket. Kelly moves well in space, and finishes equally well with both hands. Kelly is shooting 61% from the field, and has a very similar skillset to Chevez Goodwin. The two will most likely be matched up against each other for large portions of the game.
After Kelly the Bears rely on Guard Jordan Shepherd and Wing Grant Anticevich for their scoring. Shepherd is a redshirt senior, now at his third school after previous stops at Oklahoma and Charlotte. The 6’4 Shepherd is electric with the ball, and utilizes a dizzying array of spins, crossovers, eurosteps and step backs to create his own shots. Fortunately for USC, Shepherd is not an accurate 3 point shooter, and has only converted 30% of his attempts on the season. Shepherd makes up for this by getting to the charity stripe, where he converts at an 80% clip. USC will throw an army of bodies at Shepherd and work hard to keep stay in front of him, any rustiness of the defense end will show up in these matchups.
The Australian-born Anticevich is the most dangerous player on the Cal roster from deep. The 6’9” Senior is a 39% three point shooter, and has the length to get shots up without much alteration. Of course, USC will be able to match perimeter size with the likes of Peterson, Agbonkpolo, Isaiah White and Reece Dixon-Waters, but if Anticevich gets comfortable, he can change a game. In Cal’s game against Pacific Anticevich was 7-11 from three en route to a 25 point performance. USC will need to quickly identify #15 in transition and ensure that he is accounted for at all times.
Rounding out the starting 5 for Cal are Guard Joel Brown and either Forward Kuany Kuany or Center Lars Thiemann. Brown leads the Golden Bears in assists at 3.1 per game, and is primarily a facilitator in their offensive scheme, as the Junior has reached double figures just twice this season. Kuany has battled injuries this season, but expect the rangy 6’9 Junior to see minutes and match up with Mobley and Goodwin. The better bet is that Thiemann gets the start. The 7’1 German is stout on the interior and will be responsible for slowing down USC’s offensive rebounding. He is not likely to follow Isaiah Mobley out to the perimeter, but he has the size to make matters difficult for any Trojan on the interior.
Very much like USC, Cal prides themselves on solid defense and efficient offense. The Golden Bears are holding opponents to 61 points per game and an impressive 39% from the field. USC will need to be patient in the half-court offense, and quickly identify mismatches. Cal is big enough to compete with USC on the perimeter, but I think they will struggle with both size, speed and depth inside. There is only one Andre Kelly and a two-headed Trojan front court. USC will need to also push tempo in transition, and take advantage of their athleticism.
How does USC come out after the long break? USC was rolling prior to the Covid shutdown, how difficult will it be for USC to regain that momentum and return to form. USC returned to practice on Saturday, and the team has supposedly stayed in shape throughout the shutdown, but USC needs to be ready to play from the opening tip. The undefeated record and a top spot in the conference have placed a large bullseye on the Trojans.
Can Isaiah keep this up? Mobley has scored 20 points in four of six, and has been deadly from deep. USC is most dangerous when they turn in a balanced scoring sheet, but it is not bad to have a go-to player like Mobley. USC will need Goodwin, Boogie Ellis and Peterson to share the scoring load, and USC cannot become overly reliant on Mobley to score 20 every game. Isaiah will continue to be a matchup nightmare, and I expect him to use his speed and versatility once again tonight to have a big game.
It is a bit foolish to conjure up too many more questions until we see what the 2022 Trojans look like, and if the break or the virus has any effect on the team. I am so excited to finally have Trojan basketball back, and cannot wait to see the team back in action.
I think USC’s depth plays a major factor in this game, especially in limiting Cal’s offense. Fresh legs on Anticevich and Shepherd should slow them down and make it difficult for Cal. Assuming there are no issues with rust and fatigue for USC, I like the Trojans to improve to 13-0. Cal is 9-1 at Hass Pavilion, but USC is the better team, and Andy has this team rolling.
USC wins by 12+.