Basketball: USC preps for Arizona State

USC (11-8, 3-4 in the Pac-10) plays Arizona State on Thursday in Tempe, Ariz. We'll have more in advance of that game, including a video report from the Galen Center and a game preview but here are a few worthwhile nuggets from USC's Tuesday practice in preparation for the Sun Devils:

Playing hurt

Nikola Vucevic was hit in the lip by a Harper Kamp elbow in the first half of Saturday's loss to Cal and had to go into the locker room for a time to get it taken care of. He returned to the court but wasn't very effective, fouling out late in the game and finishing with only six points.

Coach Kevin O'Neill had little sympathy for the 6-foot-10 forward, reminding him that blows of that nature happen "several times a week" in the NBA.

"Nik gets fouled a lot, just because of his size and the fact that we’re trying to get him the ball a lot," O'Neill said. "I think sometimes he gets a little frustrated with that. He doesn’t get calls, doesn’t get the ball. I think it was just one of those things that threw him off that he never really got back on track from."

Vucevic said he didn’t know whether the hit was intentional but did say he was hit by Kamp more than once.

“I kept playing through it,” Vucevic said. “I never complained that I couldn’t play or anything. I could’ve probably played a little harder but it was hard because the first half it was hurting and I couldn’t really talk or communicate on the court. I just gotta keep playing through it.”

Vucevic wore a mouthguard in the beginning of the season but had stopped in recent weeks. He said it “definitely” would have helped Saturday. He’ll wear one against Arizona State.

“I think since I’m here this is the worst shot I’ve taken to my jaw,” Vucevic said. “It was pretty painful, but I’ve gotta play through it.”

Getting into the lane

USC was almost buoyed to a comeback win over Cal by reserve guard Donte Smith's eight 3-pointers, but the Trojans really struggled to penetrate against the Cal defense. Starting guards Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones found little luck getting into the lane and kicking the ball out for a shot and a umber of Smith's threes were self-created.

That needs to change against Arizona State and Arizona this weekend, O'Neill said Tuesday. Jones has clearly slowed down some from how he started the season in nonconference, which O'Neill attributed to fatigue from playing nearly 37 minutes a game. But it's also the zone defense USC has been facing that has caused the Trojans trouble.

"I think the trick is just putting us in position to just do that," Fontan said of getting in-the-lane penetration. "It isn’t as easy as it may seem from the outside, for the public or whoever it is, to just drive and get into the lane. We have to do a better job as a team, whether it is just moving the ball or getting into the gaps, and that’ll come along with just watching film and just getting used to it more and more.

Hitting their peak

It sounds a little odd. A team with three losses in its last four games talking about hitting its peak?

But that's exactly what Fontan said after Tuesday's practice. USC has a peak in mind soon.

“I think we’ve got a lot of time left until we hit our peak, which is the scary thing," Fontan said. "It’s kind of like a blessing and a curse at the same time because you need to get things rolling now, pretty much. We’re in a situation now where we need to start winning."

He's right. With 11 wins and 11 games left on the season, the Trojans need to go on a big-time run at some point soon if they hope to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But this team still hasn't won more than two games in a row at any point this year.

Said Fontan of the weekend in Arizona: "We haven’t played our best basketball – far from it, I think – but we pretty much need to get it together and go down there and try to win two. It’s important for us to definitely try to get two."