Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 7:30 p.m. game against Stanford:
1. Can the Trojans win on a Saturday?
It has happened only once this season, against Northern Arizona at the Galen Center in mid-December. These Trojans are, remarkably, 1-7 on Saturdays this season. There's little rhyme or reason to it, but it's definitely a certifiable trend by now. Think about it: on any day besides Saturday, the Trojans are 13-5; Saturday, 1-7.
Asked about the Saturday trend this week in practice, O'Neill laughed and attributed it to nothing in particular. The only possible explanation, he mentioned, is that the team tends to get cocky after winning Thursday games and then falls flat on its face on Saturdays, but that theory doesn't really hold up for those nonconference Saturday games that didn't follow a Thursday night contest.
We'll see what that means tonight against the Cardinal.
2. Will Stanford be able to shoot?
The Cardinal's performance in a January 65-42 loss to the Trojans in Los Angeles was one of the craziest things to happen in the Pac-10 this season. Not one Stanford player played well. Nobody made more than three field goals, nobody made more than five shots on the night, counting free throws, and nobody scored more than nine points. Cardinal junior guard Jeremy Green has consistently been shut down by USC stopper Marcus Simmons and averages only a tad over half of his career average against the Trojans.
Versatile forward/center Josh Owens is Stanford's only other true offensive threat.
3. Maurice Jones was effective off the bench Thursday. Can he keep it up?
The 5-foot-7 freshman point guard came off the bench for the first time in his college career Thursday against Cal and was supremely successful, scoring 22 points in the second half while relieving Donte Smith.
The move to start Smith and bench Jones was obviously purely a motivating decision by O'Neill who told reporters after Thursday's game that the way he saw Jones play against Cal was the way he saw him play in high school and, accordingly, the way he expected him to play game in and game out.
If Jones can supplant and complement Vucevic as a 20-point scorer -- even a 12-to-15-point scorer -- USC suddenly becomes a much, much more offensively viable squad.
4. Will Johnny Dawkins swallow some of his pride and play zone?
For whatever reason, the Mike Krzyzewski-taught Dawkins, Stanford's head coach, refused to play a zone defense against the Trojans when Stanford and USC played last month. That was a great gift for the Trojans, who shot a remarkable-for-them 56 percent from the field in that game in what looked like an offensive aberration.
It was. USC hasn't shot above 48 percent since. And if Dawkins orders his players to sit in a 2-3 zone for at least some of tonight's game, the Trojans likely won't tonight either.
Plus, one-on-one, USC's Nikola Vucevic severely overmatches any and all of Stanford's big men.
5. Who will win?
This game is the second-closest to a gimme left on the Trojans' schedule -- Arizona State next Saturday at home is the other -- but, then again, nothing has been a gimme for O'Neill's team this year. Yes, the January win over Stanford was clearly one USC's best games in conference play, but Maples Pavilion is a tough venue and it's a sure bet the Cardinal will be tougher to beat this time.
Heck, they nearly upset a streaking UCLA team Thursday. But we'll take the Trojans and predict them to win just their second Saturday game of the season -- by a small margin, likely, over Stanford.