USC-Cal: Solving the zone

January, 22, 2011
1/22/11
2:42
PM PT
Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 8 p.m. game against Cal:

1. Will USC see a zone?


Kevin O'Neill alluded to it not 10 minutes after Thursday's game ended, in his postgame press conference, saying he expects the Golden Bears to use a good portion of zone Saturday. Nikola Vucevic said the same thing afterward

"They'll play more zone," O'Neill said of Cal compared to Stanford. "Their inside players are a little bigger. If we play anything less than 100% on defense, we won't win."

That covers just about all of USC's primary concerns. The zone is an issue, the size of the defenders is an issue, and the defensive performance is an issue -- keeping it up, basically. We'll see to those later.

But both men also expected Stanford to use a zone Thursday, and -- save for two or three plays -- the Cardinal stuck in a man-to-man all game long. USC still hasn't proven it can beat a zone defense, consistently or even in spurts. And with Bryce Jones out, the Trojans are even weaker in terms of outside shooting.

2. Can the defense keep it up?

The Trojans held Stanford within two missed shots of setting a record low opponent field-goal percentage in Thursday's 65-42 win, and they're 10-1 on the season when holding an opponent to a field-goal percentage below 40. That also means, though, that USC is 1-7 when an opponent shoots better than 40 percent. Cal shot 58 percent in a loss at UCLA Thursday and hasn't shot under 40 since a road win over Arizona State two weeks back.

All that goes to show that a top-notch defensive performance is key for the Trojans tonight, even if it isn't likely. Harper Kamp is a more polished inside player than the Trojans are used to seeing in the post in the Pac-10, and Cal has four players who average double figures in points, an impressive number in this conference.

3. How good is Allen Crabbe?

This is an interesting question. Crabbe, a freshman from Los Angeles Price, is averaging 11.4 points on the season but 17.3 in Pac-10 play. We all know USC defensive specialist Marcus Simmons plays up to the quality of his opponent, as O'Neill constantly refrains. Will Simmons play as if Crabbe is a solid No. 1 option or a freshman simply picking up for former Cal guard Gary Franklin since his decision to transfer.

That could be the difference between a 20-point game and a 5-point game for Crabbe, and a Cal win or loss.

4. Will Cal double team Nikola Vucevic?

Vucevic was very surprised that Stanford didn't double team him on Thursday, he said after the game. Even as the 6-10 forward was knocking down shot after shot from the post, there was no effort to send a second defender from the Cardinal.

The Bears have some size, with 6-7, 265-pound banger Mark Sanders-Frison and the 6-8, 245-pound Kamp in the starting unit and Richard Solomon available off the bench.

It will be very surprising if Vucevic isn't double-teamed as soon as he gets the ball Saturday.

5. Who will win?

USC won't hold the Bears under 40 percent shooting -- most teams don't -- but the Trojans will add a second win to their over-40-percent category with a victory Saturday.

Both games last season between the two teams featured dramatic comebacks from one side. Expect that to continue, and expect USC to win by a score like 68-62.

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