Basketball: USC preps for Oregon

A few notes from Galen Center practices this week as the Trojans prepare to play Oregon on Thursday at the brand-new Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Ore.:

  • So USC's coming off a big rivalry win and heading into perhaps the easiest conference road game it'll play this season. All signs point to a letdown possibility, right? Not according to Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill, who said his guys proved to him Tuesday they are clearly focused on the Ducks. "I'm sure that that's the question everybody asks after every big win or rivalry win, but I wouldn't think so," O'Neill said. "Our guys practiced hard today. There shouldn't be any letdown. We lost to Bradley and Rider, so I don't think we're above losing to anybody, to be honest with you."

  • The Ducks are an interesting team, with a first-year coach in Dana Altman who has found previous success at the college level but inherited a clearly talent-deficient team this season. Altman has only eight scholarship players on his roster after four chose to transfer when former coach Ernie Kent was dismissed at the end of last season. Junior guard Malcolm Armstead, a sometimes-dominant player last season in his first year with the program, no longer starts. Instead the Ducks' top scorer is 6-foot-6 big man Joevan Catron, a 245-pounder who missed almost all of last season with a back injury. Catron has clearly rebounded well from his injury and is averaging 15.9 points per game this season on 52 percent shooting -- an impressive mark for a player who also operates outside of the key frequently. It's also worth noting that Catron, a fifth-year senior, is coming off his worst game of the season -- a four-point, four-rebound performance against Washington State last weekend.

  • O'Neill said he doesn't know who will guard Catron on Thursday, but that will most assuredly be the most interesting matchup of the game. Marcus Simmons could be an enticing option for O'Neill, who has always said that Simmons can guard any position on the floor but has never assigned him to a player like Catron for an extended period. Simmons also could play less than usual Thursday -- and Saturday against Oregon State too -- because both teams are expected to throw a lot of zone at the Trojans, so either Alex Stepheson or Nikola Vucevic will guard Catron at times. That should be fun to watch.

  • Speaking of that, the Trojan most at the top of his game in recent days would have to be guard Bryce Jones, and the freshman kept up his impressive run of play against UCLA Sunday with a solid showing at Tuesday's practice. Jones could be the zone-buster the Trojans need on Thursday, and O'Neill is re-developing some trust in him, so we'll see what that means come game time.

  • O'Neill said he was paying some attention to the Oregon-Auburn BCS championship game Monday night while at a Maple Leafs-Kings hockey game at Staples Center. Who was he rooting for? Well, in one way he was cheering for the Ducks and coach Chip Kelly, who he said he befriended last summer and talks with occasionally. But O'Neill also said he was glad Oregon didn't win because of the atmosphere it would have made for at Thursday's game at Matthew Knight Arena. So he was conflicted -- but it doesn't hurt USC that Oregon ended up losing, 22-19, to Cam Newton and Auburn.

USC will practice briefly this morning and then depart for Oregon later this afternoon. Thursday's game in Eugene will air nationally on FSN beginning at 8 p.m. We'll have a preview tomorrow on the blog prior to tip with our five keys to the game and comments from Vucevic and O'Neill about the Ducks: