Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding today's 4:30 p.m. game against Arizona State:
1. It's Senior Day for Marcus Simmons, Donte Smith and Alex Stepheson. What effect will that have?
First of all, the trio -- along with walk-on senior James Dunleavy -- will be honored in a pregame ceremony today, with family members joining them on the court with coach Kevin O'Neill. Simmons is the only one of them to spend all four years of his college career at USC, with Smith transferring from Mt. San Antonio College after his freshman season and Stepheson coming out west after two years at North Carolina. But, for USC's last two seasons under O'Neill, all three have been fairly crucial to keeping USC afloat in tough times. Expect emotionally charged performances from all three, and Stepheson especially.
2. Trap game?
Arizona State's won only one of its last 11 games and only two total games in Pac-10 play, but the Sun Devils are a senior-laden team; three of their four top scorers are fourth-year players. And a senior-laden team, in the late parts of conference schedules, tends to mean a great-effort team, with players intent on putting up good performances in their final collegiate contests.
ASU seniors Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks combined for 41 points -- two-thirds of all ASU's points -- the last time the Trojans and Sun Devils matched up, last month in Tempe.
3. Nikola Vucevic is really gaining steam in recent weeks. Can he keep it up?
Vucevic, the 6-10, 260-pound junior, is beginning to make his case for serious postseason honors in the conference. Arizona's Derrick Williams appears to have the Pac-10 player of the year award on lock, but Vucevic is probably the No. 3 candidate for that spot at this point. He's also a surefire first team conference selection, and it'd be very hard to keep him out of second-round NBA draft talks if he puts up three more 20-point, 10-rebound performances in the Trojans' last three conference games.
Remember, Arizona State has nobody to guard him, save for 7-2 Canadian freshman Jordan Bachynski. This could be another opportun9ity for Vucevic to take over.
4. Can Donte Smith rebound for a good shooting night?
Smith didn't score a single point in Thursday's win over Arizona, a rare occurrence that hadn't happened yet this season and hadn't happened since the Trojans' second-to-last game last season against Arizona State. While Jio Fontan picked up the slack for him with a season-high-tying 21 points, USC will need Smith today and next week if it wants to make any serious postseason noise.
He played 34 minutes, too, so it's not like he wasn't on the court enough. He played more minutes than Fontan. But he only took four shots. It's a good bet he'll come out firing today on his Senior Day.
5. Who will win?
USC will set itself up for an intriguing final weekend with a convincing win over the Sun Devils on Saturday. Next week's games against Washington and Washington State will have some significant meaning for the Trojans.
But I suspect they'll still make today's game interesting. Saturday games, as detailed last week, are a challenge for this team, and it will be dealing with a momentum loss going down from the high of the Arizona win. It's O'Neill's job to rein his players in for two hours today to secure the victory.