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Preview: USC at ASU

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USC head coach Andy Enfield
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

After a split in the Evergreen state last week, Arizona State (17-6 overall, 5-6 in conference play) embarks on its most critical stretch of the season. The upcoming three-game homestand against the SoCal schools and Arizona could very well define the Sun Devils’ 2017-18 campaign.

ASU, who dropped from the AP Top-25 poll after a 10-week run, has yet to sweep a conference series this season. After losing the Pac-12 opener at Arizona, the Sun Devils have split the last five weeks, and are currently tied for 8th place in the conference standings.

However, Sunday’s 88-78 win over Washington State was an encouraging sign. The 88 points were the most tallied in Pac-12 play this season, and the 55.7 percent shooting was the team’s best percentage in 11 conference games.

ASU once again struggled to convert from three-point range (8-of-24). However, they found other ways to manufacture points. Their ball-hawking defense forced 18 Washington State turnovers, which led to 34 points. And the Sun Devils controlled the paint on Sunday, outscoring the Cougars 50-24.

Now comes the true test. Can ASU carry that momentum into this week’s action? Up to this point, the Sun Devils have laid an egg in the first game of each conference series. And with the end of the season rapidly approaching, trading wins and losses is no longer an option for the Sun Devils, especially if they want to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

USC (17-7, 8-3) enters Thursday’s matchup as one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12. Before Saturday’s 82-79 setback at UCLA, the Trojans had won six consecutive games. And if not for a miraculous 50-foot buzzer-beater by Stanford freshman Daejon Davis, USC would have won nine in a row.

Yes, the Trojans are rolling—and unlike ASU—trending in the right direction.

After starting the season with a 3-4 record, USC has righted the ship. They finally resemble the team that began the season ranked as the No. 10 team in the AP poll, and the trendy pick (of many college basketball experts) to make the Final Four.

Of course, the Trojans had to overcome its fair share of obstacles this season. First, assistant coach Tony Bland was arrested and eventually fired, for the FBI probe into corruption in college basketball. And later, sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton, the team’s best defensive player, was suspended for the entire season by USC after an investigation determined that “a close family friend” received extra benefits.

And yet, in spite of all the controversy, USC finds itself in a good position to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Trojans are led by junior forwards Chimezie Metu (15.8 points per game) and Bennie Boatwright (14.4 PPG). Metu is an athletic freak, and among the league-leaders in points, rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage. Boatwright, a versatile stretch-four with unlimited range, has been fighting a foot injury all season long. Despite missing a few games in recent weeks, the L.A. Times is reporting that he is expected to come off the bench and play significant minutes on Thursday night. Sophomore post player Nick Rakocevic (7.3 PPG) is expected to start in Boatwright’s place.

Even if Boatwright is not 100 percent, USC has plenty of firepower on the perimeter. The senior backcourt of Jordan McLaughlin (12.3 PPG) and Elijah Stewart (11.4 PPG) is among the best in the conference. Junior Shaqquan Aaron (4.4 PPG), an athletic wing defender, rounds out the starting five.

In addition to Boatwright, the Trojans will have plenty of firepower coming off the bench. Sophomore guard Jonah Matthews (9.5 PPG), a natural-born scorer, is one of the front-runners for the Pac-12’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Freshman forward Jordan Usher (4.1 PPG) is a versatile workhorse who never takes a play off, and point guard Derryck Thornton (3.6 PPG), a redshirt sophomore, is a steady ball handler with good court awareness.

Probable Starters:

G – Shannon Evans (16.8 PPG, 4.2 APG) / G – Jordan McLaughlin (12.3 PPG, 7.7 APG)

G – Tra Holder (19 PPG, 4.7 RPG) / G – Elijah Stewart (11.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG)

G – Kodi Justice (12.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) / F – Shaqquan Aaron (4.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG)

F – Vitaliy Shibel (2.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG) / F – Chimezie Metu (15.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG)

F – Romello White (12.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG) / F – Nick Rakocevic (7.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG)

Why ASU Can Win: The Sun Devils have the Trojans’ number…especially in Tempe. ASU has won five straight against USC at Wells Fargo Arena, and the home court advantage could play a significant role in Thursday’s matchup.

Although the Trojans have length and athleticism in the frontcourt, they don’t shoot particularly well around the hoop. USC’s 2-point field-goal percentage (50.9) is among the worst in the Pac-12. That’s a relief for the Sun Devils, who have had issues defending the paint all season long.

Another thing in ASU’s favor is the recent play of starting forward Romello White. The redshirt freshman averaged 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game last week against the Washington schools. He also made 14 of his 17 field goal attempts.

Why USC Can Win: The Trojans have as much talent and depth as any team in the country. And perhaps more importantly, they are starting to jell at the right time.

USC is a veteran-laden squad that is comfortable playing together—and the numbers reflect that. The Trojans average a league-low 10.8 turnovers per game, and their assist-to-turnover ratio (1.54) is among the best in the country. Simply put, this team rarely beats itself.

And when their offense is clicking, it’s difficult to slow down USC, who has a plethora of scoring options. They have five players who average at least nine points per game.

Key Stat: USC hasn’t enjoyed much success on the road against the Arizona schools in recent years. In fact, the Trojans have lost 11 straight road games against the Sun Devils and Wildcats. The last USC victory—a 63-61 win against ASU—occurred in 2011.

X-Factor: Which Tra Holder will show up on Thursday night? After being mired in a shooting slump for a good chunk of January, the senior guard has responded in recent weeks. In the last four games, Holder is averaging 19.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting.

(Additional note: Holder was recently selected to the John R. Wooden Late Season Top-20 list, which comprises the front-runners for college basketball’s Player of the Year honors.)

Final Score Prediction: ASU 78, USC 76

Game Info:

When: 9:00 P.M. MST

Where: Wells Fargo Arena

TV/Radio: ESPN2 / KMVP 98.7 FM