Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 7:30 p.m. game against Oregon State:
1. Can the Trojans actually beat the zone?
Kevin O'Neill's plan to aggressively get the ball inside to Nikola Vucevic and let the flow of the ball run naturally from there was ineffective against Oregon, as the Ducks limited the Trojans to only 26 points in the first half and limited the pace of the game throughout.
Of course, the Beavers' zone is different than the Ducks'. Oregon ran a typical 2-3; Oregon State will run an odd 1-3-1 that very few teams around the country play. In two games against OSU coach Craig Robinson's zone last season, USC combined to score 89 points.
Yes, 89. The Trojans lost 51-45 at Gill Coliseum in January and 49-44 at home in February. They won't win tonight if they score in the 40's, clearly.
2. How big of a role will the Beavers' steals play?
Oregon State leads the nation in steals per game. Sophomore guard Jared Cunningham, the leading scorer, is second in the nation in steals per game. Four other Beavers average at least one steal a game.
For a frame of reference, the next-best team the Trojans have played this season in terms of steals is Kansas. The Jayhawks are ranked 25th in the nation in that category and average about two full steals fewer per game. Bradley, a team USC lost to in November, is ranked 236th in the nation in steals.
Careless passes will not be completed against OSU; they'll be stolen and taken back to the other end of the court for an easy look at a hoop. Against UCLA on Thursday, the Beavers were severely outshot (49 percent to 32 percent), out-rebounded (35 to 26). Yet because of their 15 steals, the Beavers were able to take a whopping 15 more shots than the Bruins and almost won the game as a result.
Expect a couple quick O'Neill timeouts in the earlygoing when his team gives away a ball or two and it translates into an Oregon State bucket.
3. Can Vucevic play a full 40 minutes?
Not literally 40 minutes, but can the junior forward play well in both the first and second halves and for the duration of the time when he's in the game? He was unproductive for most of Thursday's game but the late-game altercation with an Oregon player clearly got him fired up. After that, he was effective -- but that was too little, too late.
Is Vucevic willing to get the ball outside the key and create from there? That could be an option if teams continue to double him in the post. Alex Stepheson could also play more of a facilitator role and it would probably be a good thing for the Trojans.
4. What about the guards -- can Jio Fontan revert back to his level of production in the Tennessee and Lehigh games?
Fontan will be the first to tell you that he still doesn't think he's put together a complete game in a USC uniform, but he was playing a lot more efficiently in those games than he has in the last couple contests against UCLA and Oregon.
O'Neill continues to call him the most valuable player and the team's de facto leader -- creating last-second shots for himself and his teammates when needed and serving as a stabilizing force. A leader will need to step up in a game like tonight's, where the Trojans are desperately in need of a win against a team that has caused the trouble in the past.
5. Who will win?
USC, by a double-digit margin. The team knows it will be very hard to rebound from a two-loss trip to the bottom-feeders of the Pac-10 and stay reasonably eligible for the NCAA Tournament. Expect a big game from Fontan and an average-or-better game from Vucevic. Maurice Jones has played well of late and could be an important piece tonight.
The game will not be televised in Southern California, but we'll have a postgame report in the morning.