It's officially tournament time. So, just as we've done for every USC game this season, here are five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's noon game against Cal in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament:
1. It's win or go home, for both teams. Lose and you're done. What effect will that have?
USC senior guard Marcus Simmons has a clear plan for how he's going to motivate his teammates today, he said earlier this week. A few minutes before tipoff, as they each begin to take the court at the Staples Center, he and forward Nikola Vucevic are going to say a few words about the last Pac-10 tournament USC played in -- in 2009, when the Trojans came out in similar position to this year and swept away the league with a surprise tournament championship.
Simmons and Vucevic know how important mentality is in games like today's, when whichever team loses will throw away any hopes it had of making the NCAA tourney and head home for the summer.
We don't know how many wins USC (18-13) needs to get in the Big Dance, but we know it won't be enough if the Trojans lose today to Cal. A win and they are in business. Cal needs a Pac-10 tournament title to get into the tourney, but, again, that's not an in-accomplishable feat in the Pac-10.
2. Cal has four double-digit scorers. USC has two. Are the Bears deeper?
OK, so that stat's a little misleading. USC has only two double-digit scorers in Vucevic (17.7 points per game) and Jio Fontan (10.5), but the Trojans also have three players right on the cusp of that mark in Alex Stepheson, Donte Smith and Maurice Jones. All three average 9.9 points per game.
But that doesn't change the fact that the Bears are deeper, if not by all that much. Cal coach Mike Montgomery regularly plays nine or 10 players, including stars Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez; USC coach Kevin O'Neill never plays more than seven unless his squad blowing somebody out, and even then he hardly does.
"They score at every spot," O'Neill said of the Bears. "I think Gutierrez has become one of the best guards in the league and one of the best leaders in the league. We’ll have to play a great game to have a chance to win this thing."
O'Neill has to guard against his players naturally attempting to conserve energy in the first half of today's game for the next two days, simply because USC could easily lose this one if the Trojans try to do that.
3. Who will win the big battle?
We talked about it in yesterday's practice notes; through two matchups this season, Cal's Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison have somewhat surprisingly held their own against USC's Vucevic and Stepheson.
Part of that is because both Bears are simply good post players, but part of that is also because the Trojans haven't necessarily been up to par in those past games. But Vucevic has been playing at a new high in recent weeks, and, despite his stated lack of comfort in going against the Bears' smaller forwards, it's a good bet he'll have another good game today.
Stepheson must establish himself on the boards over Sanders-Frison early and let his points flow from there.
4. Allen Crabbe is back healthy and on fire of late. How important will that be?
Cal's Crabbe, named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year after averaging 13 points per game this season and nearly 16 in conference play, missed the USC-Cal matchup in Berkeley last month because of a concussion, but he has quickly returned and re-established himself as a threat to test the Trojans' Simmons in a head-to-head battle.
"Crabbe is a good player. He’s up there with the best scorers in the league," Simmons said Tuesday. "He’s big, strong, physical. He’s crafty. He’ll stand still a little bit and then he’ll go off some screens. He’s a good offensive player."
He's a good offensive player, sure, and one with two straight 20-point games under his belt. O'Neill wouldn't commit to assigning Simmons to guard him, but that will likely be the decision, and it should be a great matchup. Simmons could also spend some time on Gutierrez when Crabbe takes a rest, but the Trojans don't have anybody else who can guard him.
5. Who will win?
Look for the Trojans to take this one. The teams match up well, but USC is a bit better overall, and O'Neill's players are in the right mindset to knock out their first adversary on their way to the tournament championship goal.
It won't be easy, it won't be a blowout, but USC will win -- if only because, as O'Neill hinted at during practice this week, Smith as been sort of forgotten and could really surprise some observers today with his 3-point shooting. Smith did it the first time the Trojans played Cal, making eight 3-pointers in a 68-66 loss, but since he was put into the starting lineup he's been ineffective.
Look for that to change.
Said O'Neill: "If you look at the two games, Nik was totally ineffective in the first game. He got in the first half and was done for the night. And then Jio had the flu and was not very effective in the second game. There’s no real trends and there’s nothing really that Cal or us can bank their hats on – probably whoever plays well and shoots well that day is gonna win."