USC-Oregon State: Finding a way

Five questions -- well, four, plus a prediction -- that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 8 p.m. game against Oregon State:

1. Will the shots go down?

It looked very bad, but USC coach Kevin O'Neill insists that his team didn't play all that bad in the second half of its game against UCLA last week. Instead, O'Neill says, his Trojans' shots simply didn't go down.

They were fine shots, he said twice. They just didn't go in the basket. So he didn't lose any sleep over it leading up to tonight's game.

Said O'Neill this week in practice: "As long as we keep not turning the ball over and keep taking good shots, we'll have an opportunity to score more."

2. Can USC start quickly?

Asked for the key to beating both Oregon and Oregon State this weekend, both junior forward Nikola Vucevic and freshman forward Garrett Jackson said the Trojans had to start fast and stay in the game early -- unlike they did in Oregon last month. USC made late comebacks in both road games against the schools but came up a bit short on each occasion. (See the Nikola Vucevic story here.)

They trailed the Beavers by 10, 37-27, at the break in Corvallis. A 49-point second half, one of the Trojans' best of the year, wasn't enough to overcome that hefty halftime deficit, and they fell victim to a slow start.

"We don't want to play catch-up," Jackson said this week. "It just seemed a little too late last time."

3. Will Jared Cunningham go off (again)?

The 6-foot-4 sophomore had the best game of his career against the Trojans in Corvallis last month, scoring 24 points on just seven shots and thoroughly confounding USC defenders Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith.

Since then, he's averaged just over 11 points, including a one-point performance in a 14-point road loss to Stanford. Cunningham was held in check last season (albeit as not nearly the same player) so last month's outburst was fairly unexpected.

He's also a steal machine, so an off night from him would help USC's cause greatly.

4. What adjustments will the Trojans make to deal with the zone?

We mentioned in Tuesday's practice report that Garrett Jackson could be a possible starter against the Beavers.

Well, even if he doesn't start, it's likely that Jackson will play more than the 13 minutes he played in Corvallis. The 6-foot-7 freshman's been doing extensive work on his outside shot after practice in recent weeks, as O'Neill has clearly stressed to him the importance of perimeter effectiveness against a team like Oregon State.

O'Neill also experimented with playing Jio Fontan at point guard and Maurice Jones at shooting guard against UCLA, but the new alignment doesn't really provide any zone-busting tendencies. If anything, you want the best possible ballhandler -- even more than usual -- playing the point against OSU's 1-3-1 zone.

Then again, Beavers coach Craig Robinson threw in a little old-fashioned 2-3 zone during OSU's loss to Washington last week, so who knows what to expect?

5. Who will win?

USC, by more than 10. Jackson will be the X-factor, the third scorer for the Trojans, and Simmons will focus and lock down Cunningham in his limited minutes. Other players who hurt the Trojans last month -- Lathen Wallace, Omari Johnson -- will revert back down to Earth a bit, and the Beavers will have some trouble reaching 60 points against a defensively-motivated Trojans team.

This is probably the closest thing to an easy win USC will face for the rest of the season, so a loss tonight essentially eliminates any NCAA hopes, barring a Pac-10 tournament victory. And it would also put into question, with Oregon looming Saturday, any sort of postseason candidacy whatsoever.