USC will enter tonight's game versus San Diego State in a unique position, for the first time all season, USC will be an underdog. The Trojans will face our neighbor to the south in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy. Of course, USC defeated St. Joe's last night, while SDSU took care of Georgetown 73-56.
San Diego State, who represents the Mountain West Conference, has been a mainstay in the rankings for the past 15 years. In fact, the Aztec's have won 20 games in 15 of the past 16 seasons (and 30 games three times). Despite playing in a weaker conference, this is a well-coached team that prides itself on tough defense and offensive efficiency. Without a doubt this will be USC's toughest game so far this season.
Aztec coach Brian Dutcher returns an experienced team that seems ripe for another NCAA Tournament bid. SDSU's was upset in the first round of last year's tournament by Syracuse, although many "experts" had expected the Aztec's to make a deep run into March. Leading the way for the Coach Dutcher will be a familiar foe, in former Cal standout, Matt Bradley. The Senior transfer joins the Aztec's a year after making all Pac-12 second team in both 2019 and 2020. The left-handed, sweet shooting guard has already established himself as SDSU's go to scorer, and he is averaging over 15 points per game. In four previous games against USC Bradley has averaged 12.5 points per game, but Andy has found ways to pester the scorer, and run him off his marks. Bradley is creative with the ball, but remains more comfortable receiving the ball in space where he can pull up.
Joining Bradley in the back court are Guards Lamont Butler and Trey Pulliam. Both are averaging a shade under 10 points per game. Butler possesses great athleticism, and plays bigger than his 6'2" frame would otherwise indicate. He is an efficient three pointer shooter (50% on the season, and 3-3 yesterday), but most of his damage comes from inside the arc, where he can drive and dish. Pulliam has seen a lot in his time in an Aztec uniform. The Senior guard epitomizes the tough defense that has made SDSU so successful in recent years. Offensively he is more of a facilitator than scorer, but he will most likely get the matchup on Boogie Ellis. He is tough, but do not expect to see Ellis back down from the challenge. Ellis, of course hails from San Diego, so it should be a good opportunity to show off and show out against his hometown team. When USC has the ball this is the matchup to watch.
Down low, SDSU features 6'10" Nathan Mensah and uber-athletic Forward Keshad Johnson. Mensah averages 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. He is a disruptor down low, and Chevez Goodwin/Joshua Morgan will have their hands full tonight. Johnson, is a 6'7" wing who has already put together a highlight reel full of insane dunks. While undersized for the Power Forward position, he makes up for his smaller frame with a tough mentality and great instincts.
San Diego State has played in a bevy of close games already, with three of their 5 games ending in single digits. Their experience with tight games, may play a role as this game comes down the stretch.
USC will need to move the ball quickly and decisively, and put the ball in the hands of its playmakers. I have Drew Peterson pegged as a player who may have a breakout game. Peterson has shown the ability to get to his spot at will, and he will have a huge size advantage on any of the SDSU Guards.
The Trojans have played one close game against Temple, but aside from that no other game has ever been in doubt. How will USC react to being an underdog for the first time? My expectation is that USC will take the court with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, and look to establish tempo and style of play in the early minutes of this game.
What is the health status of Isaiah White? While USC has the depth to survive without White, his style of play, especially on the defensive end would be a huge asset for Coach Enfield in this game.
What happens if USC goes cold? We have seen the second half mini-draughts in a few games this year, but where does USC go if they are overwhelmed defensively. As a caveat, I do not think this will happen, but if San Diego State muddies the game up, USC has a propensity to get sloppy and rush. The team must be able to compose itself and get the ball to Ellis and Mobley. At this point in the season, I am relaxed with either leader possessing the ball, but again my pregame prediction is that Peterson wins my game ball.
I am on the record stating that I am not sure any group of professionals does their job better than the folks who set the lines in Vegas. That being said, I think they have this one picked incorrectly. The Trojans depth and confidence will prevail in this one!
Trojans by 7! Let's bring home some hardware and get that Tier 1 win!