By Rich Ruben
The Trojans return home for key conference games against Utah at 6:30 on Thursday and 7:30 on Saturday against the Buffaloes. Colorado and USC are tied for second in the PAC 12 at 5-2, a half game behind 6-2 Oregon. Both SC and the Buffs are 16-4 overall, while the Utes are 12-7. SC has put together an impressive string of games recently. Since the very poor showing at Washington, the Trojans beat UCLA by double figures in Westwood, stomped Cal, handed Stanford its first conference loss in an overtime thriller, lost in double overtime to top 15 Oregon on the road, and are coming off a 20 point win in Corvallis.
Two new “expert” brackets out yesterday differed widely in how they placed the Trojans, one listing SC as a six seed and the other as a ten. SC’s NET ranking on Tuesday is 40, and they will have a number of chances to improve this ranking in the upcoming weeks. Though the PAC 12 is very balanced, the Trojans have one advantage over several of the other top teams; SC plays 7 of its final 11 regular season games at home. The road trips are against the Arizona and Mountain schools.
Preview of The Utah Utes
Utah was not expected to contend in the conference this season as a result of an almost complete roster turnover, but the Utes have exceeded expectations. Although they are only 3-4 in the conference and 1-4 overall in true road games, their NET ranking is a decent 74. It has been an up and down season for head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s team. They have beaten Kentucky and Minnesota and they swept the Washington schools at home last weekend. They also beat Mississippi Valley State early in the season by 94. But they have struggled in a number of games.
The Utes are led by versatile sophomore star Timmy Allen. The 6’6” forward is averaging 19 points, 7 1/2 rebounds and 2 1/2 assists, while shooting 46% from the field. His only weakness is from three, where he makes only 22%. The Utes other returner averaging in double figures is Both Gach. He is erratic, but when he is hot he can change a game. A slender 6’7” sophomore guard, the quick Gach is averaging 10.5 points, 3 boards and 3 assists, though he only makes 38% of his shots and 27% from three.
A pleasant surprise has been the play of 6’1” freshman guard Rylan Jones. Jones looks like he is 15 years old, but has played with remarkable poise and intensity. He averages 11 points and 5 assists, and has made 44% of his shots, 42% from three and 88% of his free throws.
The Utah bigs are mostly underclass men and have struggled against opponents who are big or physical, and the Trojans are both. The only experienced big man is 6’9” sophomore forward Riley Battin, who averages 9 points and 5 boards, and makes 47% of his shots and 36% from three.
For Utah to win, Allen and Gach both need to have big games. They don’t have many other offensive weapons. They are not a good three point shooting team, though they surprisingly rank 56th nationally in offensive efficiency, but a very poor 214 in defensive efficiency, mostly as a result of the inability to defend inside.
Preview Of The Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado brought back the most experienced team in the conference and were expected to compete for the PAC 12 title. They returned players who scored 73 points per game last year from a team that finished 23-13, tied for fourth in the league, and won two games in the NCAA tournament.
There has been some ill will between Colorado coach Tad Boyle and Andy Enfield. It started when Boyle made public comments about Arizona and SC arising out of the FBI scandal which involved former Trojan assistant Tony Bland. Boyle accused both schools of cheating. Last February Boyle and Colorado’s athletic director Rick George were hugging each other and jumping up and down on the court Like teenagers after Colorado beat the Trojans by 4 at Galen. That scene didn’t sit well with Andy and his staff. There will be a lot of emotion from both teams Saturday night.
Colorado’s NET ranking is 17 as of Tuesday. Though they are a good shooting team, their offensive efficiency is a lower than expected 110 nationally, but they are very good defensively and are 15th in defensive efficiency. By comparison, SC is 152 on offense and a solid 49 on defense.
The Buffs best player is 6’0” junior guard McKinley Wright IV who averages 13.5 points, 5.5 boards and 5 assists, and controls the offense. He shoots 45% from the field and 35% from three. His running mate is 6’7” forward Tyler Bey, who averages 13 points and 9 boards. He makes 51% of his shots and 47% from three.
Colorado’s best big man is 6’10” senior Lucas Siewert. He averages 8.5 points and 5 rebounds, and plays a physical game. He is converting 43% of his shots, 49% from three, and a remarkable 91% from the line. Their other big is 6’8” sophomore forward Evan Battey who averages 9 points and 6.5 boards. He makes 53% of his shots, but has only made one three.
SC has a significant advantage over Utah inside. The Trojans should be able to overpower the Utes’ front court. Unless Wright, Gach, and Jones all go off, the Trojans should win this game by double figures. The SC perimeter defense has been good all season, and I don’t see the Utah guards being able to win this game.
The Colorado game should be much closer. The Trojans also have an advantage against the Buffs’ bigs, but not to the same extent as against Utah. Colorado’s experience and their quickness in the backcourt make them hard to beat, and they get their hands on a lot of balls defensively. The Buffs are only 2-2 in true road games so far this season, and the Trojans have played their best basketball over the last five games. The Trojan bigs and the guards need to play well to beat Colorado, and I think they will. I like the Trojans to come out on top in a close game.
Jonah now has 1233 career points and needs 14 to pass Purvis Miller for 23rd all time at SC and one more to pass Stais Boseman for 22nd. His 223 career threes are fourth best at SC and only 22 behind all time leader Elijah Weaver. Nick’s career 1184 points put him in 27th position, and his 831 career rebounds are tied for fourth with John Rudometkin, and only 8 behind Sam Clancy in third and 65 behind Taj Gibson in second.
Look Back At Win Over Oregon State
The team played an outstanding game against the Beavers. Everyone shot a high percentage, and the Trojans played great team defense and shut down the Beaver’s stars Ethan Thompson and Tres Tinkle. The fact that this performance came 36 hours after the heart breaking loss at Oregon made it stand out even more. The question now is whether the Trojans can sustain this level of play. Sometimes teams, especially young teams, noticeably improve as the season wears on. The Trojans appear to be one of those teams.