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. How much of an effect will Bryce Jones' transfer have on the Trojans?
Judging solely off the minutes Jones played in USC's two losses last week to the Oregon schools, you'd say his decision to transfer will have a minimal -- if any at all -- effect on the rest of the Trojans' season. But it'll be considerate, simply because Jones was one of only three viable available options off the bench for Kevin O'Neill. If you thought the Trojans were stretched thin before, well -- they'll be stretched even further against the Cardinal. O'Neill has played up freshman forward Curtis Washington as an option to get minutes as the third man off the bench, but it has to be viewed as an unlikelihood that Washington will play any sort of meaningful minutes tonight.
2. Will Marcus Simmons be able to neutralize Stanford's Jeremy Green?
Simmons is certainly capable, although he wasn't at his defensive best against the Oregon schools. (Though, as O'Neill always says, the better player he's going against, the better defense Simmons plays.)
Green is Stanford's top scorer, one of only two Cardinal players putting up double-digit points nightly. A junior, Green benefited from playing alongside Landry Fields in the Stanford backcourt last season, but he's able to maintain most of his effectiveness this year as the lone wolf back there. His points-per-game average and field-goal percentage are both slightly down from last year's numbers. It's also worth noting that Green had his worst game of the season at the Galen Center last season, scoring only three points on 1-of-10 shooting against the Trojans.
"He's a level up even from some of the guys we've played," O'Neill said this week of Green. "But Marcus has been a tremendous stopper for us and we would hope he does the same kind of job for us on Jeremy on Thursday."
3. How much zone will the Trojans see?
In the past, Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins has expressed a willingness to go to a zone defense if a particular situation calls for it.
This situation very well might, with Dawkins' Cardinal squad facing a USC team that is clearly weakened against the zone -- be it the 2-3 or the 1-3-1. Expect Stanford to break it out at times tonight and force O'Neill to pick between the offense of Donte Smith and the defense of Simmons, a decision he has sometimes struggled with.
4. Will O'Neill's squad rebound defensively?
"It was the softest we've been all year long, in those two games," O'Neill said of the defense's play against the Oregon schools. "If you look at us, in the previous eight games, everybody was under 40 percent and we're 6-2. The numbers tell it."
He's right -- the numbers do tell it. And, luckily for USC, the Trojans get an opportunity to rebound against one of the more offensively-limited teams in the conference. It starts with Simmons locking down Green and continues with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson serving as true anti-penetration presences in the key, something they sometimes struggled with in Oregon.
6-foot-8 Stanford forward/center Josh Owens is the Trojans' secondary focus, and O'Neill has no experience coaching against him because he sat out all but one minute of last season.
5. Who will win?
Said O'Neill: "If we don't defend, we'll lose."
He's mostly right. USC's offensive output against Oregon State on Saturday was fine. A game like that from Vucevic and Jio Fontan in the backcourt and the Trojans will be fine offensively. The difference-maker will be whether or not the Trojans allow 80 points again, as they did Saturday.
Our pick is USC by a margin between five and 10. Simmons stands a good chance of holding Green under 10 points, and Stanford doesn't have enough alternative offensive options to combat that.