The good old zone defense

USC's Donte Smith did not make any of the six 3-pointers he tried as the Trojans struggled shooting as a team. Greg Bartram/US Presswire

DAYTON, Ohio -- USC was finally looking a bit like itself.

The Trojans were making their run, coming back from a 37-27 deficit with the help of a lot of free throws and penetration by guards Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones to bring the margin to just one point at 44-43, with 7:41 to go in Wednesday's First Four game against Virginia Commonwealth

And then the Rams switched to a zone defense.

The Trojans proceeded to score three points the rest of the way, and the Rams scored 15 of the final 18 points to clinch the victory and a trip to Chicago to face No. 6-seeded Georgetown on Friday night at the United Center.

So, yes, it's safe to say the Trojans imploded when faced with a zone defense, much the way they have over the last two seasons under Kevin O'Neill.

Asked about what happened when VCU switched to a zone and broke up what appeared to be some semblances of rhythm from the Trojans, O'Neill said he never saw his team in a rhythm Wednesday night.

"Looking back, it didn't seem like anything we really did went right," O'Neill said.

Now, get this: VCU coach Shaka Smart didn't even want to play a zone defense. His assistants had to convince him to do so, and their arguments only became convincing when the Trojans made their run.

"I don't really like playing zone," Smart said in his postgame news conference. "The coaching staff was urging me to do it earlier in the half. And I kept having to kind of wave them off. But USC was making a run on us and they kept getting in the lane. Their guards were doing a great job penetrating. So we went to zone.

"I thought it did two things. Number one, it shut down some of their penetration. Number two, it really took them out of an aggressive mindset and they were much more on their heels offensively. So that obviously helped us, and we did a good job rebounding out of it."

The reasons for USC's struggles against the zone are the same reasons it struggles on offense as a whole, but the Trojans' issues are exacerbated when they're essentially forbidden from penetrating into the lane.

They must shoot 3-pointers and 20-footers. Designated perimeter shooter Donte Smith shot 0-of-6 from 3-point range on the night and the team shot 1-of-9 from deep in total, so that clearly wasn't working.

The Trojans' inefficiencies against the zone did them in once again.