Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 7:30 p.m. game against Cal:
1. Donte Smith will start in place of Maurice Jones. What will that mean?
Coach Kevin O'Neill announced Wednesday that the senior Smith will start at shooting guard against the Bears, moving the freshman Jones to the bench for the first time this season. It's a curious move at this point in the year, with the starting lineup and rotations essentially the same game in and game out for the last month, but it's reasonable simply because it mixes things up and creates a bit of buzz around the team.
It's also worth noting Smith is coming off perhaps his two worst shooting games of the season last week, when he went a combined 6-for-24 against the Oregon schools at home. He did the torch the Bears for eight 3-pointers at the Galen Center last month, though.
As we see it, Jones will still play his usual minutes -- maybe a few less -- but O'Neill is just hoping for a different look by not bringing Smith in off the bench.
2. Will Nikola Vucevic have to do it all himself once again?
In Saturday's loss to Oregon, Vucevic was essentially all of the Trojans' offense. He had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but nobody else even hit double figures. Jones and Smith both had nine points, but it was Nikola and nothing, really.
He was asked after practice if he was prepared to shoulder a heavy load of the offense once again tonight against Cal.
"If I have to, I'll do it, but I think the guys will step up," he said. "They have games where they don't knock down shots and I have those games too. But if the team is struggling and I'm doing well I will definitely do everything I can."
3. Again, can USC get off to a quick start?
That's the key, according to Vucevic. And, as we mentioned, that's the primary reason behind O'Neill's decision to start Smith in Jones' place.
Vucevic compared last month's Stanford and Cal home games and said the biggest difference between the two was how the Trojans started: against the Cardinal, in perhaps USC's best conference game this season, the Trojans started quick and never let up; against Cal, they started slow and never made it all up.
The first 10 or so minutes tonight will be very telling.
4. Will Cal have Allen Crabbe at full strength?
Crabbe, the likely Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, has scored at least 10 points in every game since he became the starter when Gary Franklin transferred in early January -- well, almost every game. He only played 10 minutes in last week's 32-point loss to Washington after suffering a concussion in the first half and had just two points.
Crabbe also missed Saturday's game against Washington State while recovering from the injury but is expected to play tonight. Since he became the starter for the Bears, he's averaging 16.2 points per game and a healthy portion of assists and rebounds, too.
5. Who will win?
Cal is not the deepest team in the conference, but the Bears are a little deeper than the Trojans. And, with the two teams featuring very similar talent levels, the depth could make all the difference.
USC's also lost three consecutive three consecutive games and 15 of its last 18 at Cal's Haas Pavilion. The Trojans don't play well in the Bay.
Cal by a margin of more than 10, with the Bears putting up 70 or so points.