USC: Jared Cunningham

Basketball: USC 67, Oregon State 56

February, 11, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Five minutes in to Thursday's USC-Oregon State matchup at the Galen Center, the Beavers were ahead by five, 11-6, by virtue of a relatively quick start and an ultra-slow start from the Trojans.

At that point, it looked a lot like last month's USC-Oregon State game, when the Beavers opened up to a 10-point lead at the break and never let up on their way to an 80-76 win.

But Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill immediately called a timeout after Omari Johnson converted an easy layup after a Marcus Simmons missed layup. O'Neill stared at his team in front of his bench and had only one thing to say, he later said, before ushering them back out onto the court: "Could you get down and guard your man, please?"

The Trojans guarded their men just fine after that, going on an immediate 12-0 run and closing out the first half on a 31-12 run. USC (13-11, 5-6 in the Pac-10) finished off its first win over the Beavers (9-14, 4-8) in its last four tries with a comfortable 67-56 win.

"It was like we couldn't believe that we actually got off to a good start tonight," Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said afterward. "And then we let it slip away. We played tentative and then we didn't get aggressive until we were behind and it was too late at tht point."

O'Neill said in his postgame press conference that the outcome was "interesting." That's a good way to put it. USC essentially re-learned Thursday that it can win without playing particularly well on offense or defense.

The Trojans and Beavers came out close to even on two key statistical categories -- field goal percentage (OSU shot 40 percent, USC 39) and rebounds (both teams had 32) -- but USC managed to beat Oregon State at its own game, sort of. USC forced the Beavers into 19 turnovers and limited itself to 14.

A telling stat? Points off turnovers: USC had 28, Oregon State 14. The Trojans played great "turnover defense" -- as O'Neill calls it -- Thursday.

Player of the game: Jio Fontan didn't score much, but he was efficient and effective at the point guard spot in his 31 minutes of play, with nine points on just five field-goal attempts and four assists with only two turnovers -- and did all that while being pressured pretty much every trip down the floor by the Beavers' 1-3-1 zone defense.

"Jio did a really good job taking care of the ball," said Nikola Vucevic, who had a game-high 17 points. "He had a couple turnovers, but you have to against that type of defense.

"He really made a couple big plays that we needed down the stretch."

One thing's clear: Fontan's a different player when playing point. He's confident in his ball-handling abilities, it's clear, and a calming influence in times of duress on the floor. He also hit two 3-pointers -- one in each half -- to give the Trojans a perimeter boost.

"I feel like my team benefits more when I'm aggressive," Fontan said. "Not too much my stats, my numbers, how much I score or how many shots I take, but just me being aggressive and me being active."

Stat of the game: The Beavers nearly set their season-low for points until a final-minute layup put them into familiar territory with 56 points OSU had 80 points against the Trojans last month, their fourth-highest scoring total of the year.

"I'm really satisfied with the way we played on defense," Vucevic said. "That's what we needed to do to get this win."

Quote of the game: "All that talk of an eight-game season goes right down the drain if you lose." -- O'Neill

The eight-game season O'Neill refers to is simply what was left for the Trojans this season. At 12-11 on the season entering into Thursday, they had to win at least six of their remaining eight contests to have even a prayer of earning an NCAA tournament appearance.

It's a seven-game season, now -- beginning with Oregon at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Vucevic said it will be a definite must-win for the Trojans.

Notes: Oregon State's 19 turnovers were a season-high for a USC opponent...OSU leading scorer Jared Cunningham attempted double-digit free throws for the second-straight game against the Trojans. He converted 9-of-10 Thursday after making 10-of-14 last month in Corvallis...Oregon State came in leading the nation in steals at 10.1 per game but fell just short of that number with nine.


See what Fontan had to say postgame about the win, including his compare-and-contrast between last month's loss in Corvallis and this victory:

USC-Oregon State: Finding a way

February, 10, 2011
Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 8 p.m. game against Oregon State:

1. Will the shots go down?

It looked very bad, but USC coach Kevin O'Neill insists that his team didn't play all that bad in the second half of its game against UCLA last week. Instead, O'Neill says, his Trojans' shots simply didn't go down.

They were fine shots, he said twice. They just didn't go in the basket. So he didn't lose any sleep over it leading up to tonight's game.

Said O'Neill this week in practice: "As long as we keep not turning the ball over and keep taking good shots, we'll have an opportunity to score more."

2. Can USC start quickly?

Asked for the key to beating both Oregon and Oregon State this weekend, both junior forward Nikola Vucevic and freshman forward Garrett Jackson said the Trojans had to start fast and stay in the game early -- unlike they did in Oregon last month. USC made late comebacks in both road games against the schools but came up a bit short on each occasion. (See the Nikola Vucevic story here.)

They trailed the Beavers by 10, 37-27, at the break in Corvallis. A 49-point second half, one of the Trojans' best of the year, wasn't enough to overcome that hefty halftime deficit, and they fell victim to a slow start.

"We don't want to play catch-up," Jackson said this week. "It just seemed a little too late last time."

3. Will Jared Cunningham go off (again)?

The 6-foot-4 sophomore had the best game of his career against the Trojans in Corvallis last month, scoring 24 points on just seven shots and thoroughly confounding USC defenders Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith.

Since then, he's averaged just over 11 points, including a one-point performance in a 14-point road loss to Stanford. Cunningham was held in check last season (albeit as not nearly the same player) so last month's outburst was fairly unexpected.

He's also a steal machine, so an off night from him would help USC's cause greatly.

4. What adjustments will the Trojans make to deal with the zone?

We mentioned in Tuesday's practice report that Garrett Jackson could be a possible starter against the Beavers.

Well, even if he doesn't start, it's likely that Jackson will play more than the 13 minutes he played in Corvallis. The 6-foot-7 freshman's been doing extensive work on his outside shot after practice in recent weeks, as O'Neill has clearly stressed to him the importance of perimeter effectiveness against a team like Oregon State.

O'Neill also experimented with playing Jio Fontan at point guard and Maurice Jones at shooting guard against UCLA, but the new alignment doesn't really provide any zone-busting tendencies. If anything, you want the best possible ballhandler -- even more than usual -- playing the point against OSU's 1-3-1 zone.

Then again, Beavers coach Craig Robinson threw in a little old-fashioned 2-3 zone during OSU's loss to Washington last week, so who knows what to expect?

5. Who will win?

USC, by more than 10. Jackson will be the X-factor, the third scorer for the Trojans, and Simmons will focus and lock down Cunningham in his limited minutes. Other players who hurt the Trojans last month -- Lathen Wallace, Omari Johnson -- will revert back down to Earth a bit, and the Beavers will have some trouble reaching 60 points against a defensively-motivated Trojans team.

This is probably the closest thing to an easy win USC will face for the rest of the season, so a loss tonight essentially eliminates any NCAA hopes, barring a Pac-10 tournament victory. And it would also put into question, with Oregon looming Saturday, any sort of postseason candidacy whatsoever.

USC-Oregon State: The rebound game

January, 15, 2011
Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 7:30 p.m. game against Oregon State:

1. Can the Trojans actually beat the zone?

Kevin O'Neill's plan to aggressively get the ball inside to Nikola Vucevic and let the flow of the ball run naturally from there was ineffective against Oregon, as the Ducks limited the Trojans to only 26 points in the first half and limited the pace of the game throughout.

Of course, the Beavers' zone is different than the Ducks'. Oregon ran a typical 2-3; Oregon State will run an odd 1-3-1 that very few teams around the country play. In two games against OSU coach Craig Robinson's zone last season, USC combined to score 89 points.

Yes, 89. The Trojans lost 51-45 at Gill Coliseum in January and 49-44 at home in February. They won't win tonight if they score in the 40's, clearly.

2. How big of a role will the Beavers' steals play?

Oregon State leads the nation in steals per game. Sophomore guard Jared Cunningham, the leading scorer, is second in the nation in steals per game. Four other Beavers average at least one steal a game.

For a frame of reference, the next-best team the Trojans have played this season in terms of steals is Kansas. The Jayhawks are ranked 25th in the nation in that category and average about two full steals fewer per game. Bradley, a team USC lost to in November, is ranked 236th in the nation in steals.

Careless passes will not be completed against OSU; they'll be stolen and taken back to the other end of the court for an easy look at a hoop. Against UCLA on Thursday, the Beavers were severely outshot (49 percent to 32 percent), out-rebounded (35 to 26). Yet because of their 15 steals, the Beavers were able to take a whopping 15 more shots than the Bruins and almost won the game as a result.

Expect a couple quick O'Neill timeouts in the earlygoing when his team gives away a ball or two and it translates into an Oregon State bucket.

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