Behind enemy lines: The Daily Trojan previews USC vs Arizona men's basketball game
Sports writer Keith Demolder previews a crucial Pac-12 matchup
Sports writer Keith Demolder at the Daily Trojan did a Q&A session with the Daily Wildcat regarding the USC men's basketball team to preview the upcoming matchup between the Trojans and the Wildcats. The winner has the inside track on the Pac-12 standings.
Q: USC and Arizona will be battling for first place in the Pac-12 on Saturday, both coming off back-to-back losses. Which team should be more concerned with its recent struggles?
A: My first inclination would be the Trojans considering they were up by big over both UCLA and Arizona State, but because of the Trojans conference schedule coming up, I am not as concerned.
Yes, it is certainly disheartening to watch a team with so much talent squander multiple leads, but I think the fact that USC was even up big against top teams on the road says more than them losing and wasting a lead like they have. Arizona, on the other hand, lost to a UCLA team at home and didn't even have a lead for the last 25 minutes of the game. Along with a narrow home victory over a Utah team that Arizona beat by 12 on the road earlier in the season, the Wildcats should definitely be more concerned right now.
Q: Arizona’s defense has continued to be a major point of concern this season. Who on the Trojans could have the most success against UA?
A: They've [Arizona] allowed seven Pac-12 teams to shoot over 37.5 percent from deep this season, meaning that their perimeter defense needs major work. This means that Andy Enfield is likely to exploit the 3-ball, but who will be the one shooting it? I believe it's going to be either Bennie Boatwright or Elijah Stewart. Both have histories of lighting it up from deep and considering that Stewart has perennially been such a streaky shooter, I think that he either gets red hot or goes ice cold in Tucson.
It's hard to pinpoint one guy because Boatwright has typically been one of our best scorers, but the key will have him shooting from deep, and having Chimezie Metu going down low and getting those boards. Him, and especially Nick Rakocevic, have been huge on the offensive glass this year. After a poor showing vs. UCLA, Boatwright found his shooting touch vs. ASU and I think he continues the trend tonight.
Q: Both teams have the cloud of the FBI investigation hanging over them this season. Do you think it has affected USC’s performance this season?
A: Yes. Wholeheartedly and unfortunately, yes. Along with the pressure that comes from playing without De'Anthony Melton, the team has not been as stout defensively in his absence. It's been an emotional year for this team and before the UCLA game, this team felt it really had turned the corner and was looking like the best team in the Pac-12.
The winning streak really helped their confidence and their bench has grown into a little family unit of sorts. But, make no mistake, this team is playing without one of the best defenders in the Pac-12 and especially with guys like Chimezie Metu, it hurts not having him play at all. We saw it with not just his "FREEDMELT" t-shirts that he's worn, but also with his tweets when he called out USC athletics quite publicly. I'm not sure how that last-second ASU loss felt — probably similar to Stanford — but this team is hungry to prove itself and show they're more than just Melton.
Q: With high expectations placed on the Trojans in the preseason, what has contributed to them not living up to those expectations?
A: As mentioned, along with the suspension and loss of De'Anthony Melton — our biggest defensive weapon — it has been the combination of injuries, poor guard play and a new defensive scheme that really have plagued this team this year.
The injuries came up in games like Princeton in which Boatwright, nor Mathews were playing and USC lost by 10 in overtime. Not having Boatwright healthy has been a huge detriment to the USC offense. This isn't taking anything away from Nick Rakocevic, who in my opinion, is probably the most underrated forward in the country.
But the guard play, instead, has not stepped up in his absence. Surely, Elijah Stewart, Shaqquan Aaron and Jonah Mathews had a hot stretch where they hit shots. But, this entire season has been incredibly hit or miss for the Trojans shooting the ball. Stewart would be an automatic double-digit scorer, and now he has been neutralized and hasn't been able to find his 3-point shot hardly at all this year. Jordan McLaughlin is one of the best passers in the country and knows how to lead a team. However, as much as his distributing role has helped this offense, his inability to score or create opportunities for himself off the dribble have been somewhat concerning. For USC, the Trojans have shot 35 percent or less 11 times this year, including seven of those against Pac-12 foes. It seems like anytime one player is hitting his shots at a decent clip, the rest of the team can't really follow suit.
And finally, the new defensive scheme that Enfield is rolling is focused on transition basketball, which means getting steals and hitting shots quickly on the other end. Because of this zone scheme that Enfield likes to use, it has let us be susceptible to the 3-point shot — much like Arizona. 10 times we've allowed opposing shooters to hit 10 or more 3-point shots.
If USC wants to try and beat this Arizona team, they are going to have to limit the Wildcats scoring from the outside.
Q: Are the Trojans good enough to sustain a level of success the rest of the regular season and finish ahead of Arizona to win the Pac-12?
A: I believe that this win could determine whether or not USC wins the Pac-12 — or even finishes the year off strong. Both of USC's past two losses have been in heart-breaking fashion and when USC has had leads. After being on such a high after a winning streak, it's all about how USC comes out of this road trip.
If they can end it on a high note, home games against Oregon State and Oregon look like easy wins (especially since USC won earlier this year against both). Then going on the road to play tough Colorado and Utah — teams USC has also beat handily — will not seem as daunting of a task. So, with those four games looking like wins in at least three of them, I see the UCLA game as a sure-fire win. It will be the final game of the year and it will be in front of a rocking USC home crowd that will give the Trojans the ultimate edge and probably the best record in the Pac-12.