Players on USC's bench began quietly cheering along with the school's student section, "we want Kurt" with three minutes left in the Trojan's 61-48 win over the Oregon State Beavers.
The enthusiastic students were referring to Kurt Karis, an end-of-the-bench player for USC who has only gotten in eight games this season and is averaging a whopping 0.3 points per game this year. He's become the embodiment of a victory cigar for this USC team, and while he didn't get in during USC's second round tournament win, the chant itself embodied the fact that this game felt like USC's within minutes of the opening tip.
USC was a six point favorite against Oregon State, and not many expected the Beavers to pull the upset, but the Trojans still took care of their business. Here are a few takeaways from the game, with the winner of Utah and Oregon coming tomorrow.
Wide Range of Outcomes
Despite Andy Enfield's reputation as an offensive-minded coach, this particular USC teams does its best work when it's locked in defensively. USC held Oregon State to just two points over the first six minutes of play, and was up by 11. Frankly, they looked dominant. Then, for whatever reason, it flipped. Whether it was some subs coming in, fatigue, a simple lack of focus, or something else entirely, USC let up 10 points over the next three minutes and the lead was trimmed to four. USC can look like the best defensive team in the conference and the worst within mere minutes.
Oregon State isn't exactly an elite team, they have no shot at the NCAA Tournament, but USC was able to exert its will for the first six minutes and then look NIT-bound for the next four. The positive for USC is that it only hit four threes in this game and shot 25% from beyond the arc. If they hit a few more the lead likely balloons to 20. While it obviously didn't matter in this particular game, the ability to win despite poor shooting shows that if they are able to knock down some shots they have a chance to hang with the best in the conference.
The formula for USC victories is simple: Jordan McLaughlin runs the offense like a surgeon, Chimezie Metu is efficient on offense and controls the glass on defense, and at least one of Jonah Matthews, Elijah Stewart, Shaqquan Aaron, Nick Rakocevic, or Jordan Usher makes a few plays.
The problem is, predicting which of those five role players will step up feels just as difficult as successfully filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket. Against Utah two weeks ago it was Usher. The game before that it was Stewart. Today it was Matthews. The sophomore guard hit three of USC's four triples, and tied McLaughlin for second on the team in scoring with 13.
Having five different guys capable of going for 15 on any given night for USC sounds great in theory, but when it seems like the Trojans can never have more than one of those five play well at the same time, it gets a bit tiresome. The Trojans beat both Utah and Oregon twice this season, so if they can win their semifinal matchup tomorrow against either of those schools, they will take on either UCLA or Arizona in the conference championship with a chance to secure an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Against either of those teams, and against any NCAA Tournament team if they make it, USC will likely need two of those five to play well in order to get a victory.
As I eluded to earlier, this USC team is actually lead by its defense, not by three-point shots or alley-oops. When USC's defense is locked in, they win. It's as simple as that. The Trojans had six losses in conference play. They allowed over 80 points in five of them. Offensively, USC has only scored 80 points four times in conference play, and not a single time since mid-January against Utah.
With the athletes that USC possesses, it has the capability of defending even the best teams in the nation. The issues is just executing that for 40 minutes instead of, say, 12. There were stretches in USC's losses to both UCLA and Arizona where they looked incredible on the defensive end. There were also stretches when it looked like they didn't even belong on the same court. The idea of defense winning championships is a cliche, and often one that doesn't even fit. But for the Trojans, defense has become their calling card and it will have to be if they want to continue winning games in the Pac-12 Tournament as well as the NCAA Tournament.