When the 24th ranked Trojans take the floor at T-Mobile arena at 5:30pm tonight, one word will be top of mind: Redemption.
Just 12 days ago USC was defeated by Utah 71-61. The loss spoiled the Trojans' chance at a Pac-12 regular season championship. Trojan faithful are keenly aware of the perils that come with the road trip to the Rocky Mountains: high altitude, a time change and a couple of well coached teams. In fact, USC has only won one time in its last seven trips to Salt Lake City. In the most recent competition, USC was outhustled, outshot, out-physicaled and simply outplayed. Despite sloppy first half play, USC carried a two point advantage into the break...and then the wheels came off.
Utah outscored USC by 12 points in the second half, keeping USC under the magical 63 point threshold. This season, USC has only lost one game in which it has reached 63 points (72 points vs. Arizona in February). Utah, as it has for the majority of the season, leaned heavily on All-Conference swing Timmy Allen and sharp-shooting Guard Alfonso Plummer. The two gashed USC for 34 points, shooting a highly efficient 54% (making 5-8 from deep). Utah also received significant contributions from the rest of their starting 5, as Brandon Carlson, Pelle Carlson and Mikael Jantunen kept the Trojan defense from double teaming Allen and Plummer. Utah converted on 60% of their 3-pointers in the last game, almost 20% better than their season average, which effectively ruined any chance a late Trojan comeback.
Aside from the welcomed re-emergence of Drew Peterson, the Trojan offense was as ineffective as we have seen since the new year. Peterson contributed 19 points off the bench for Coach Enfield, but the Trojan starters looked visibly drained and only combined for 36 total points, on a horrid 30% shooting. The Trojan "big 2" of Tahj Eaddy and Evan Mobley scored a total of 15 points, and made just 4-17 field goal attempts. Offensive output from Tahj makes this team "click" and the Trojans will need more from the Senior Guard as we enter post-season play.
There are games that coaches, players and fans wish to forget, and for this team, the Utah game from 2/27 is just that. Perhaps there were valuable lessons to take out of the contest, but judging on how the team came back and played last week, I believe Andy has the team looking forward.
In what ended up being the most competitive game of the opening round of the Tournament, Utah defeated Washington 98-95. The score indicates a closer game than it was, with only 4:36 left Utah led 88-71, before an offensive eruption from the Huskies cut the lead down to 3 as time expired. The aforementioned Allen and Plummer led the way for the Utes adding 24 and 21 points allowing Utah to tie a season high 98 points (Utah also scored 98 points in their regular season finale vs. ASU). For what it's worth, Utah averaged just 71 points per game this season, but there is no doubt that USC is catching a hot team in the Tournament opener.
USC's success will start on the defensive side of the court, and will no doubt be focused on stopping Allen and Plummer. Isaiah White is back from injury and will most likely draw the initial challenge of guarding Allen. Allen is an athletic 6'6" who plays bigger than his physical frame. I will guess that Andy will make constant rotations to keep a fresh body on Allen, look for Max Agbonkpolo and Drew Peterson to also matchup with the Utah star. Allen does a bunch of damage in transition, and USC will need a concerted team effort to avoid mental lapses after made baskets and in transition defense.
In the interior, Utah will will start 7 footer Branden Carlson and Finnish Forward Mikael Jantunen. Jantunen is a dangerous player and showcases his European roots with the ability to step out and shoot from deep. I imagine the Mobley brothers will get this matchup, although it would not be surprising to see USC deploy a zone defense and attempt to disrupt Utah's flow with pure length. If USC is able to harass Plummer and fellow 3 point threat Riley Battin the Trojans should be in good shape overall.
Offensively, the box scores from both Utah games are amongst the most unique of the season. In the first meeting of the season, a game that USC won 64-46, Evan Mobley did not attempt a single shot (he finished with 3 FTs). In the rematch, Mobley took just 7 shots, but was able to get to the FT line 8 times. Mobley's unselfishness has been well-documented on this site, but I expect the Trojans to feed the All-World Freshman with regularity moving forward, and I expect it to pay dividends. Mobley should be able to create good looks on command, and if he is able to establish position on Carlson will most likely find himself at the charity stripe with regularity, where he has been improving throughout the season.
Utah, just like most of the Trojans' opponents this year will be required to sag and defend Mobley first. If Tahj, Peterson, Ethan Anderson or Isaiah White are able to convert from the perimeter, the Trojans should walk away with an easy W, if not this game will could come down to the wire.
Utah is playing for its post-season lives, and a team with nothing to lose and everything on the line is dangerous. On paper, the Trojans are the superior team and I expect this team to build off of the late game heroics of last Saturday. USC 75, Utah 60.