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September 16, 2020
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Grinding Gears: USC hoops can still make it to March

first_imgEric He | Daily TrojanAfter practice one day before the season began, senior guard Jordan McLaughlin talked about the heightened expectations that came with being ranked the preseason No. 10 team in the country.“We’re not going to be ranked No. 10 and blow it all away,” McLaughlin said.With seven games left in the regular season schedule, the jury is still out on pretty much everything for USC men’s basketball. A season that began with its hype train at full speed ground to a halt with three straight nonconference losses, a defeat to Princeton and then a lackluster Pac-12 opener against Washington.But then the Trojans caught fire, winning eight of their next nine games, their only loss coming on a halfcourt buzzer beater by Stanford. They beat Colorado, Utah and Cal by double digits. They pulled off close wins over Oregon and Oregon State, and then redeemed themselves against Stanford. And they took a huge step toward solidifying their NCAA Tournament bid.Still, there is work to do. USC lost to UCLA last Saturday in a game they should’ve won, if not for immaturity on the part of sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic and poor late-game execution. With or without De’Anthony Melton, it is clear at this point that the Trojans are not as strong as the No. 10 ranking they were handed preseason.They can, however, do their best not to “blow it all away.” Right now, the best case scenario for this team would be to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, and go from there. Expectations can shift over the course of the season, and considering the start to this year, simply making the tournament would be a win. To do that, USC must get through this pivotal weekend ahead against the Arizona schools in the desert.On Thursday, the Trojans will play an upstart Arizona State program that has faded in Pac-12 play but burst onto the scene early in the season with several impressive wins. On Saturday, they face No. 13 Arizona, the Pac-12 favorite.These two games, combined with last Saturday’s loss to UCLA, constitute perhaps the most important stretch of USC’s remaining schedule. The Sun Devils may be faltering in conference play, but still sport the most dynamic offense the Trojans will see this season. They lead the Pac-12 in scoring offense, while the Wildcats, after a poor start, have won 16 of 18 games, lead the Pac-12 in field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage and have emerged once again as a Final Four hopeful. History does not bode well for USC on this road trip. The Trojans have been swept on their last five sojourns to the desert and seven of the last eight years. The last time they beat both Arizona teams in the same season was in 1985. This history underscores just how big these two games are. At the very least, USC needs a split — and if it can’t pull the upset at Arizona, at least make it a close game. Because if the Trojans lose both games, there are few opportunities left to climb back up in the tournament picture.Heading into Thursday, the Trojans rank 45th in RPI. That should be good enough to qualify for the tournament — both ESPN and CBS currently project USC as an 11th seed. Both opponents this weekend rank ahead of USC in RPI — Arizona State is 44th, Arizona is 16th. After these two games, the Trojans won’t have a chance to really build on their resume. Their only big test will be the season finale against UCLA, which is 56th in RPI. Otherwise, games against Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah won’t move the needle.USC has been through a lot this season — the preseason hype, the early struggles, the injury bug that has hit star junior forward Bennie Boatwright again. And, of course, the ongoing FBI investigation that led to the firing of assistant coach Tony Bland and the absence of Melton all season has lingered in the back of everyone’s minds.Perhaps this team, which some thought would be a sleeper to make the Final Four, won’t be the one that brings USC hoops back to glory. The Trojans won’t fully live up to their No. 10 preseason ranking. But they can’t blow it all away, and a couple of wins this weekend would go a long ways toward avoiding that.Eric He is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Thursdays.last_img read more

September 16, 2020
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Football prepares for opener against Fresno State

first_imgIn the spirit of consistency, the Trojans won’t be changing what they do on the field week-to-week, no matter how good the upcoming opponent. The plays the offense will run are from the spring playbook. Helton said the simplicity of the new system will allow younger players to step up. From Daniels’ end, the Air Raid system requires less thought; he can just go out and execute.  “People have been jawing about ‘SC Sucks, ‘SC’s this, ‘SC’s going to win five games again,’” Pittman said. “So I’m ready to play and ready to prove them wrong.” The Trojans aren’t looking back; it’s all about the here and now. But Pittman said things haven’t changed too much from last year. The team is more physically built than it was last year, but the biggest difference is that the players are working harder.  This is the deepest wide receiver group Pittman has played with, and the veteran said it will make his job easier. The defense can’t target and double team him because if they do, they’ll be creating an opening for other receivers like redshirt juniors Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Vaughns and sophomores Devon Williams and  Amon-Ra St. Brown.  The coaching staff created the quarterback depth chart based on who was most consistent, and head coach Clay Helton has confidence in all three scholarship quarterbacks. Sophomore starter JT Daniels used the same phrase as Pittman that “football is still football,” referring to changes from last year. One difference is Daniels’ role as a leader on the team.  WIDE RECEIVERS Freshman wide receiver Bru McCoy’s waiver has not been cleared yet. He will likely not play this Saturday, as the NCAA is not expected to make a decision before the game. In preparing for both the opener and the season as a whole, the Trojans will be focusing more on themselves than on their opponents.  “They’re not going to be the ones that get written about in the paper, they’re probably not going to be talked about on the news, but the reason we’re successful or not successful is going to fall on them,” he said.   Along with having more experience, Daniels is also more vocal. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Graham Harrell taught him the importance of energy, saying that “the most excited team wins.” He’s still not a “rah-rah guy” but now leans more toward that end of the spectrum than being a “quiet guy.”  Harrell expects his group to improve every single day, and week by week he expects them to play better as the team continues to gel. That camaraderie is key to Harrell’s offense. Feeling comfortable with the players next to you is just as important as individual talent.center_img “It’s all about us, we don’t really care what they do,” Pittman said. “Obviously we look at them and scout them, that’s what every good team does.”  Harrell has placed a lot of responsibility on the offensive line, which will set the tone for both the physicality and the tempo of the offense. His expectation for the offense is to dominate the line of scrimmage.  OFFENSIVE ATTACK “Everything feels the same to me,” Pittman said. “Football is football, nothing really changes. I think we just have more confidence and our quarterback has more confidence. We’re all just ready to play football.” After waiting seven months to get back out on the field, this week of practice marks the final stretch before the Trojans’ home opener against Fresno State this Saturday. Having practiced against each other for so long, there’s a new energy with the Trojans, symbolized by President Carol Folt’s presence at practice.  Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. expressed the importance of the Trojans starting the season strong. A win this weekend would help garner momentum and set the tone for the rest of the fall. INJURY REPORT Redshirt freshman inside linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu will lose another season to recovering from a surgery on his foot he had prior to coming to USC. Once healed, he’ll have four years left of eligibility, making him an older player which can certainly be an advantage, and he’ll have the opportunity to be healthy, which is the most important thing, Helton said.  Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. heads downfield after hauling in a pass against Colorado in 2018. (Daily Trojan file photo)last_img read more