Washington Huskies (9-4, 1-0) vs. USC Trojans (12-2, 1-0), Sunday January 3rd 12:00pm, Pac-12 Networks.
Somehow, last night's 60 foul-game against the Bruins turned out to be one of the most entertaining and competitive I've seen in a long time. The Huskies didn't exactly play a clean game, but they managed to scrape together a winning effort, surviving multiple clutch Alford three-pointers in the process.
Now that we know that these Huskies can compete in the Pac-12, it's time that everyone realize that so can the USC Trojans.
This team appears to be good. In fact, they are 12-2, with both losses coming in the Orlando Classic back in late November. The competitive 77-87 defeat at the hands of then-23rd and now 6th-ranked Xavier looks better each week, while the Trojans followed that effort up with their only real disappointment of the non-conference season, a 73-83 loss to Monmouth.
To start off Pac-12 play, USC thoroughly handled Washington State in Pullman by a score of 90-77. While the final deficit is modest, the Cougars often found themselves down by 20+ points.
Above all else, Coach Enfield's team is balanced, featuring six double-digit scorers and what has been fantastic team defense. Another issue could be size, as the Trojans boast two starters standing at least 6-10 and weighing at least 220, as well as two rotational bigs at 6-11. Meanwhile, the tallest Washington player stands 6-9.
Projected Starting Five: G Jordan McLaughlin (So., 6-1, 170), G Julian Jacobs (Jr., 6-4, 180) G Katin Reinhardt (Jr., 6-6, 205), F Bennie Boatwright (Fr., 6-10, 220), F Nikola Jovanovic (Jr., 6-11, 230).
Key Bench Players: G Elijah Stewart (So., 6-5, 180), F Chimezie Metu (Fr., 6-11, 215), F Darion Clark (Jr., 6-7, 220), G Malik Marquetti (So., 6-6, 190), F Malik Martin (So., 6-11, 220).
McLaughlin, in sticking with the general theme, has improved markedly since last season. He still averages around 30 minutes played, and has only increased his scoring average from 12.1 to 13.0. The real improvement is in his efficiency, as his FG% has increased from 35% to 48%, and his accuracy from deep has jumped from a miserable 27% to a near-elite 45%.
McLaughlin has also done a superb job of facilitating the offense alongside Julian Jacobs. He is second to Jacobs in assists with 5.1, while keeping his turnover average respectable at 2.4. The young guard lit it up against WSU yesterday, racking up 19 points on 8-12 shooting, including 3-6 from beyond the arc.
The aforementioned Jacobs has steadily improved over his three years at USC to the point that he is finally an efficient starting guard. His passing has been a revelation, with a team-high 5.8 assist (to only 2.0 turnovers) average, representing a significant gain on his previous career high of 3.4 as a freshman. Jacobs isn't much of a shooter, but he still contributes an even dozen points per game on 45% shooting.
Reinhardt is yet another returning guard who has played very similar minutes to last year while seeing his efficiency soar. The junior guard leads the team in scoring at 13.5, though the margin is basically negligible. He attempts nearly five three-point shots on an average night and converts 43%, but he is a capable scorer outside of his jump shot.
Hyped-up freshman Bennie Boatwright is an interesting player to deal with. Standing 6-10 and playing power forward, Boatwright nevertheless leads the team in three-point attempts and hits a pretty solid 40%. He is guaranteed to stretch the defense, forcing Chriss, Dickerson, or Dime to chase him around the perimeter.
To round out the starting five we have Nikola Jovanovic, a junior forward from Serbia who should cause the Huskies serious matchup issues. He is a double-double threat with averages of 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds, and against Washington State he made good on the threat with 20 points and 12 boards.
First off the bench could be Elijah Stewart, the sixth double-digit scorer on this roster. He could certainly start, and has for large stretches this season, but Enfield elected to bring him in as a sixth man against the Cougars. He played 20 minutes and chipped in a characteristic 11 points.
Metu has essentially filled the Malik Dime role this year, coming in off the bench to hustle and block lots of shots. He leads the team with 1.9 per game, and while he didn't manage any blocks in Pullman, he did score 9 points and grab 4 rebounds.
There is a dropoff in minutes played and overall relevance after Metu and Stewart, though Clark and Marquetti have had their moments in non-conference play.
While the Huskies have every reason to be confident after knocking off the Bruins, I am concerned about their chances versus such an athletic, balanced, and efficient squad, especially coming right off a double-overtime grind.
Like just about every game this year, a lot will depend on the foul calls. If this is another 60-foul affair that sees the Huskies lose their top three bigs in the second half, the Trojans will likely end up with an overwhelming size advantage.
Can Chriss, Dickerson, and Dime avoid racking up fouls? They haven't given us any reason to think so, not in the context of this year's refereeing. At this point, Dickerson and Chriss are in foul trouble so often that it is impacting their opportunity to play the minutes necessary to develop. Seeing at least one of them enter halftime without 2 or 3 fouls would be a welcome change and a serious competitive boon.
I'll also be curious to see if the Trojans come out in a zone defense. The choice didn't earn UCLA a win, but I'm also not quite ready to say that the Huskies figured out the Bruin zone, either. A lot of the late-game heroics were essentially Andrews and Crisp passing the ball around the perimeter until they jacked up a shot. Luckily, they both splashed one late, but it's not necessarily a formula to repeat over the course of another full contest.
Speaking of Andrews, beating the Bruins with so many bigs fouled out of the contest was only possible due to his production. His FG% remains below 40%, but his efficiency as a whole has taken a big step forward due to his increase in free throw attempts (and the fact that he hits 80% of them) and his improved high-volume three-point shooting.
He will likely need to carry the load again. If the Trojans play zone, his ability to barrel into the paint and reliably draw contact gets the Huskies through long dry spells on offense. I believe he will need another strong scoring performance to keep this one exciting.
Overall, I predict a competitive game with lots of fast breaks and even more irritating foul calls on both teams, with the Trojans pulling away late as Washington struggles to get defensive stops late. Here's hoping I'm wrong!
Prediction: USC 89, UW 84