By Rich Ruben
The Trojans return home for two crucial games this week. They host Washington at 6:00 on Thursday and WSU at 5:00 on Saturday. The road trip in Arizona was rough. The Trojans rallied but came up short against Arizona, and lost a game they should have won at ASU. SC is now 17-7 on the season, 6-5 in the Pac-12 and tied for fifth with UCLA. Troy has a NET ranking of 47 as of Tuesday. The teams listed in the first top 16 preview by the NCAA Selection Committee suggests that the Committee will rely heavily on NET ranking and 47 probably has the Trojans on the wrong side of the bubble. The Trojans need to finish the regular season strong. They have the good fortune of playing five of the last seven games at home.
SC has played a number of close games. They are 4-2 in games decided by 4 or less or in overtime, losing to ASU and Oregon and beating LSU, TCU, Stanford and Utah.
The Trojans have several season-long weaknesses, which they have overcome in some games, but which also have sunk them in other games. They have serious problems attacking any full court press. SC has struggled against every press they have seen, and SC’s turnovers increase. Several of the 24 turnovers against the Sun Devils were caused by the press, and the Trojans should expect to see a full court press defense from every opponent which has the type of players to employ a press.
Poor shooting from the free throw line remains a problem for most of the Trojans. As a team they make only 68% of their attempts. Jonah, Daniel and Onyeka are the exceptions. Jonah has been very hot over the last month and has made 77% on the season. Daniel has made 75%, and Big O has converted over 74%. On the other hand, Ethan and Isaiah are well under 60%, and four straight misses by Ethan were a significant factor in the loss to ASU. As a team the Trojans made only 10-17 against the Devils. If SC made a few more free throws and cut their turnovers to a still too high 16-18 they would have won by a comfortable margin.
Getting the ball to Big O in a position where he can work for a shot has been a problem in several games. Against ASU he was limited to only 3 shots. The Trojans’ best player converts over 60% of his attempts, and when his shots are limited, SC usually struggles to score.
Jonah had one of his best offensive games against the Devils. He made 8-17 from the floor including 5-8 from three. However, the Trojans’ guards as a group have had more poor shooting performances than good ones. Jonah, Ethan and Kyle are below 40% on the season, and Daniel and Elijah are just over 40%. The Trojans need two or three of the guards to have good offensive production every game.
The Trojans overcame one season long problem against ASU by playing well from the first tip-off. SC has had to play from behind in too many games.
If the regular season was over today, SC would play UW on Wednesday in the first round of the PAC 12 Tournament next month. The Trojans are very capable of finishing in the top four and securing one of the first round byes. Colorado is the only team with three conference losses, and the Trojans play them next week in Boulder. In two weeks SC hosts the two Arizona schools who both have four losses, and close the season at home against UCLA, the other five loss team. SC’s schedule provides opportunities to move up in the conference standings and get some quality wins to improve the Trojans’ NET ranking, but they need to win most of these games, beginning this weekend.
Preview of the Washington Huskies
The Trojans opened the conference season on the road in Washington. They beat WSU, and came into Seattle with a lot of momentum. The Huskies smashed SC, winning 72-40. Nothing went right for Troy. The Trojans were intimidated by the Huskies’ big men inside, and SC made an almost impossibly low 20% of their shots. The three Trojan bigs made 8 of their 40 shots. Jonah and Elijah were a combined 3-13. No Trojan scored in double figures.
Since that game the Huskies have won only one of their eleven games, and are now 12-12 on the season. They are in last place in the PAC 12 and have lost 6 in a row. Most of the losses have been by six points or less. Although it seems impossible, the Huskies‘ NET ranking is still 60, in large measure due to several impressive early wins including over Baylor and Tennessee, and their lone loss before conference play was to Gonzaga.
The major factor in the UW collapse is that starting point guard Quade Green became academically ineligible immediately after the SC game. One of the key players for UW, Green was second on the team in field goal percentage, tied for the top in percentage from three, and led the team in free throw percentage and assists. Green scored 14 points and had 5 assists against the Trojans, though in fairness, if Green hadn’t played against SC, the Huskies would have cruised anyway.
The two Washington freshmen big men had big games against Troy. Isaiah Stewart had 18 points and 10 rebounds and though Jaden McDaniels only made 3-12 shots, he scored 11 points and blocked 6 shots. As a team the Huskies had 12 blocks that night.
The two freshmen have been the Huskies’ best players, and are projected first round picks this spring. Stewart has remarkably similar stats to O and is similar in size. He averages 17.4 points and 8.7 boards and makes 56% of his shots from the field. McDaniels plays inside and outside, and averages 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds. However he has made only 39% of his shots and 32% from three.
As a team the Huskies are converting 44.7% from the field, 33.5% from three, and 70.4% from the line. Without Green, none of the Huskies average more than 2 assists per game. Washington has easily been the most disappointing team in the PAC 12, and the Trojans need to ensure that the UW disappointment lasts for at least one more game.
Preview Of The Washington State Cougars
The Cougs are 14-10 overall and 5-6 in conference play, tied for seventh with Stanford and only a game behind the Trojans. They have been very good at home, losing only to the Trojans and Arizona in the Pac 12, but they struggle on the road and are only 1-5.
SC opened conference play in Pullman with a 65-56 win. At first glance, looking back at that game it is hard to see why the margin wasn’t much larger. O made 12-14 shots and led the Trojans with 27 points and SC completely shut down the Cougs’ two major scorers. WSU Star CJ Elleby was 3-22 from the field; he leads the team in scoring at 19 per game, rebounding at 7.3, steals and assists. His running mate Isaac Bonton was 7-26 against the Trojans. He is a far more streaky shooter than Elleby, averaging 14.4 points while shooting under 38% from the field and 31% from three.
The smaller Cougars stayed in the game against the Trojans by grabbing 20 offensive rebounds. The strategy for SC against WSU this time around is pretty simple: limit Elleby’s open shots, keep Bonton from getting hot, and control the defensive boards against the smaller Cougs.
The Trojans are 9-2 at home, losing only to Colorado and Temple. They have lost to all four of the teams ahead of them in the conference standings, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and ASU, though all but the Colorado game were on the road. The Trojans desperately need a sweep this weekend, and I think they will get it. They are not good enough to overlook any team, and the coaches must ensure the players are focused. UW is long overdue to play much better; even without Green, they have far more talent than their record suggests. I expect the Trojan big men to be on a mission and the Trojans to get the ball inside enough so that O and Nick especially will have good offensive games against the Huskies.
If both Elleby and Bonton put together big scoring games, the Cougars can be stay in and potentially win any game. It Is unrealistic to expect that duo to shoot so poorly again, but I think it is also unrealistic to expect the Cougs to rebound as well as they did against the Trojans in Pullman.
I expect SC to win both games by a comfortable margin, but recognize that the Trojans have been inconsistent enough that they are vulnerable. The Trojans need to finish the season strongly, and anything less than a sweep this weekend would significantly reduce the chances of making the NCAA field.
Several Trojans are moving up SC top career or season marks. Jonah now has 1287 career points, and passed Chimezie Metu. He is 20 points behind Taj Gibson who has the 20th most points in Trojan history. Jonah has made 232 three point shots, and is tied with Lodrick Stewart for third all time. He needs only 13 more to tie all time leader Elijah Stewart.
Nick has 872 career rebounds and needs 24 more to tie Taj Gibson for second on the all time career list.
Big O has 69 blocks this season, which ties him with Taj Gibson for sixth most by any player in a season for the Trojans. Taj set the record of 100 in his junior year. O is now tied with Taj for the most blocks by a freshman.
Ethan has 109 assists, and is only 2 behind Ryan Francis for 6th most by a freshman.