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USC-Arizona State: Moving past the zone

Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- other than Arizona State's zone defense that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 5:30 p.m. game against the Sun Devils:

1. Can Maurice Jones play with full intensity?

Jones has clearly been weighed down by the minute total he's racked up this season, but the penetration skills he brought to the team in the early part of the season appear almost non-existent at this point. He's no longer the difference-maker he was in early-season play and plays more like a table-setter for the rest of his teammates.

The problem, of course, is that USC can't afford for him to simply set the table; Kevin O'Neill and the Trojans need him to be a key scorer, especially against defenses like the Sun Devils'. Jones hasn't had more than 12 points in a game in a month (He hasn't had more than three assists in a game in that span either, for that matter.)

Said O'Neill this week: "I think he could do more, and we want him to do more."

Arizona State, as we'll relay later, is a bit of an interesting team in that the Sun Devils tend to use a variety of players at the point guard position -- none of whom are under 6-1. This could be a good opportunity for Jones to make a memorable impact in an important game for the Trojans.

2. If it comes down to it, who will get the rebounds down the stretch?

"It’s killed us," O'Neill said of USC's failure to grab key defensive rebounds late in recent games and all season, really. "We gave up four in the last five and a half minutes [against Cal] and every one of the four led to a score. We had it at Kansas, gave up three in the last two minutes. Bradley we gave up four in the last four minutes, Nebraska three in the last two minutes. We’ve gotta get a little bit better at closing games and finishing games defensively."

The coach may be exaggerating a teeny bit, but preventing ASU from grabbing offensive rebounds in the second half is key tonight. It's a good thing the Sun Devils don't have a single player averaging more than two offensive rebounds or six rebounds a game.

3. Can Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson guard smaller players?

"They’ll be sized down a lot, which is hard for us to guard," O'Neill said of the Sun Devils. "They’re playing zone and sizing down, that’s hard for us to check with Al and Nik. Somebody’s gonna be guarding a legitimate 3-point shooter a lot of the game."

What does he mean? None of the Sun Devils' top six scorers are taller than 6-7. That means either Vucevic or Stepheson -- and sometimes both -- will be forced to defend against a player a lot smaller than them. It's an interesting challenge, but not an unprecedented one.

“We’ve done that before," Vucevic said this week. "It’s not gonna be easy because we’ve gotta move our feet and it’s not something we’re used to doing all the time, but we just have to do it."

Keep in mind that also means that Vucevic will get some quality mismatches on offense when ASU's lone big man -- 7-footer Ruslan Pateev -- is out of the game.

4. How big of a role will the road aspect play?

Under O'Neill, the Trojans have really struggled on the road. This season, they've lost both of their Pac-10 roadies -- at the Oregon schools -- and won only one game on the road all season, at Tennessee in December. But it's easily fixable, they say.

"I don’t want to disrespect anybody, but I wouldn’t say it’s harder than I expected," guard Jio Fontan said of playing on the road. "It’s not harder than I expected -- we just haven’t played well.

"I don’t think we’ve played well on the road, besides the second half of the Kansas game, and lost."

5. Who will win?

It seems only fair to project a split for the Trojans against the Arizona schools, and this game is a much easier victory than Saturday's tilt against Arizona. ASU doesn't have any scary players offensively, so this could end up being an ultra-low scoring game in Tempe.

Whoever gets to 55 wins? Probably USC.