Remember how USC basketball coach Kevin O'Neill said the key to beating Oregon's zone was aggressively getting the ball inside to leading scorer Nikola Vucevic and letting the ball flow from there?
It's too bad the Trojans only abided by his plan in the final 10 minutes of Thursday's 68-62 loss to the Ducks, because USC was effective on that end in the final minutes. But the Trojans -- and Vucevic in particular -- were so stagnant offensively in the first 30 minutes that they gave themselves too much ground to make up down the stretch.
USC (10-7, 2-2 in Pac-10) will regret this one later this season when the NCAA Tournament comes into play. Dana Altman's zone defense puzzled the Trojans through and through for much of the game and USC similarly failed to set any sort of commanding tone on the defensive end.
Here's how a typical possession went: freshman point guard Maurice Jones would bring the ball up the court and wait for something to develop. Nothing would. Jones would then pass the ball off to Jio Fontan, Marcus Simmons or Donte Smith on the perimeter. They would then either look for a shot or attempt to pass the ball inside to Vucevic. A pass would likely be rejected or stolen; a shot would usually be missed. Once in a while the Trojans would get out in transition and score fairly efficiently, and Jones sometimes penetrated and created solid attempts.
Other than that, it was pretty pitiful.
A good sign of how bad USC's offense really was: Donte Smith didn't score a point in the second half yet still finished with a game-high 13 points. An impressively aggressive Jones had 12 points, three assists and two steals, but Jio Fontan struggled from the field on his way to a nine-point game. He hasn't made more than four shots in a game since before Christmas. Alex Stepheson wasn't a focal point of the offense against Oregon but was able to record a solid nine-point, eight-rebound game.
Oregon (8-9, 1-4) hadn't won a game in a month. The Ducks were also without their leading scorer Joevan Catron, but other players picked up the slack. Five Oregon players finished with double figures in points, with forward Tyrone Nared and guard Malcolm Armstead coming off the bench to combine for 21 points. Armstead burned USC in Eugene last season and he did much of the same Thursday.
Oregon State now looms Saturday. The Beavers almost upset UCLA in Corvallis Thursday by making a furious late-game run but came up just short.
In order to rebound and beat OSU, USC must sort out one very important thing on offense: how, exactly, do the Trojans intend to score when teams zone them?
They really couldn't do much of anything when the Ducks sat in a zone Thursday. Smith or Fontan would invariably throw up a desperation shot, and more times than not the shot would miss. O'Neill and USC need to find a way to get the ball into Vucevic's hands -- double teams be darned -- and have him create. If the Trojans don't do that against OSU, expect to see more zone when Stanford and Cal visit the Galen Center next weekend.
Why would you try anything else?