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Basketball: USC vs. Oregon: Revenge

2/13/2011

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

1. Can USC be a bit streaky?

This is USC's fifth in-conference weekend set of games.

The Trojans haven't swept any of them. Three have been splits. One -- the trip to Oregon last month -- was an opponent sweep. It takes a certain sort of character from a squad to sweep a weekend at the college level, and it's become fairly clear this season that USC coach Kevin O'Neill's team is, at the very least, not oozing with that sort of character.

In fact, the Trojans haven't won more than two games in a row all season long, a fairly remarkable statistic. This team is not built to put together win-win-win or loss-loss-loss streaks; this team is clearly quick to adjust its preparation styles and motivation based on wins and losses.

We'll see if that continues to hold true tonight.

2. How much of an impact will Joevan Catron have?

Catron, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward and the Ducks' leading scorer, was out the last time these two teams played, a 68-62 Oregon win.

He missed the UCLA game that followed that game but returned the next week for a rivalry game against the Beavers. In his last five games, he's averaging nearly 18 points, seven-plus rebounds and nearly three assists to lead the Ducks to surprising wins over both Washington State and Washington.

He's an interesting challenge for the Trojans in that he's really unlike any other player in the Pac-10 in his strengths and weaknesses. He's big, but not tall. He's quick, but not lightning-quick. Back when USC was first preparing for Oregon last month, O'Neill dropped hints that he was considering using noted defensive stopper Marcus Simmons on Catron for at least some of the game -- to avoid getting forwards Alex Stepheson and Vucevic into foul trouble as a quicker player gets past them and to allow Simmons to play motivated defense on a team's No. 1 player.

3. Can Vucevic play a full 40 minutes?

He struggled during the first half of the game in Eugene last month and even for the first half of the second half, really. Then, when tempers flared and some Ducks and Trojans got close to an on-court fight, Vucevic appeared to turn his play up a notch and become a changed player for the rest of the game.

He finished the game with only 11 points, his fifth-worst offensive output this season in 24 games. His first-half struggles in Eugene meant first-half struggles for the whole team really, because of the gameplan's focus on him, so it's clear that those kinks need to be worked out by game time in order for USC to beat Oregon tonight.

4. Will Oregon sit in a zone?

USC has shown flashes in recent weeks of a burgeoning ability to bust through a zone defense on occasion, but it's still clearly the smart thing to do if you're an opponent looking to slow down the Trojans.

Donte Smith was cold from the field against the Beavers on Thursday; Garrett Jackson had a solid first half, shooting-wise, but barely got off the bench in the second and didn't get much of a chance to prove himself more to O'Neill.

Smith and Jackson are absolutely crucial to any semblance of a zone-busting offensive unit for the Trojans, and, truth be told, starting guards Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones need to be able to hit a key outside shot or two. Both players did that Thursday, with Fontan converting a 3-point attempt in each half and Jones with a key three down the stretch

5. Who will win?

USC, in a close game. Expect Catron to cause a lot of problems for the Trojans, but don't expect the rest of the Ducks to. Four Oregon players -- starters Johnathan Loyd and E.J. Singler and reserves Tyrone Nared and Malcolm Armstead -- finished in double figures on that night last month, and that was without their best player. This time, it'll be a lot more confounding if a number of those players have good nights. Oregon simply isn't a talented offensive team.