USC-Oregon: The arena opener

Five questions that will go a long way toward deciding tonight's 8 p.m. game against Oregon:

1. How much of an effect will the Ducks' new Matthew Knight Arena, opening Thursday, have on the game?

Oregon is making a big deal about the new stadium, which cost a reported $227 million to construct -- more than 50 percent more than it cost to build the Galen Center in 2006. Of course, the Knight Arena is also unlike anything the college basketball world has ever seen.

USC forward Nikola Vucevic said the atmosphere Thursday night will be "crazy," but he said the Trojans are ready for it. Jio Fontan said the experience of playing Sunday's game against UCLA in front of a loud crowd will help, even though the crowd will be cheering in a different direction.

2. Can USC beat the zone with an outside shooter and scare teams away from sitting in the defense?

This has been the Trojans' single biggest problem in conference road games in past seasons. Teams catch a little bit of momentum to start the game and are able to take a lead and then relax into a slow-paced game featuring a zone defense USC hasn't been able to crack. There's only one real way Kevin O'Neill's team can get Oregon out of the zone consistently: make outside shots.

Said O'Neill: "We've just gotta do what we did against Washington State's zone and Washington's: Get the ball in to Nik, drive it and be aggressive, not passive."

When Vucevic gets the ball in the post, it'll force an immediate double team. Then he'll have an open player to pass to, and Vucevic's passing skills have dramatically improved this season. It'll be up to guys like Bryce Jones and Donte Smith to hit those shots.

3. Oregon coach Dana Altman's squad has been respectable defensively, but do his Ducks have the offensive firepower to compete?

Maybe. The Ducks' roster is not completely devoid of talent, but Malcolm Armstead and Jeremy Jacob haven't lived up to their high expectations this season as second-year players in the Oregon program.

But they do have Joevan Catron, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward who can bang down low and also step outside on occasion. He's averaging 15.9 points per game this season, and fellow forward E.J. Singler, the younger brother of Duke forward Kyle Singler, is putting up 11.4 as a secondary scorer. Four other players average seven points per game or more as well.

"They have a lot of good players -- five or six guys that played a lot of minutes last year and three starters returning," O'Neill said. "And they're not starting their starting point guard who started 41 straight games (Armstead), so they must be OK. They're going to be a tough team to play."

In Armstead's place Altman is starting 5-foot-8 freshman point guard Johnathan Loyd, a Tajuan Porter clone who will make for a great matchup with USC's 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones.

4. Who will guard the Ducks' Catron?

Simmons seems like the unlikely but reasonable choice, with the two players matching up perfectly in height but Simmons giving up some 40 or so pounds to Catron. Still, O'Neill always says he can guard any type of player, and Catron would bring a new, interesting challenge for him.

Plus Simmons has also admitted he plays better defense when he's challenged. No other Oregon player can challenge him on the end he specializes on.

"I haven't decided yet," O'Neill said earlier this week of his plan against Catron. "I'm not against putting Marcus Simmons on their best inside player, though, and kinda go from there."

5. What about last season, when USC lost twice to Oregon? Will that be on the Trojans' collective memories?

USC's 67-57 loss to Oregon in Eugene last January was one of its worst of the season, and the 54-44 home loss the next month wasn't much better. Oregon had USC's number in 2010, but that doesn't mean anything for 2011, the Trojans say.

"That was last year," Vucevic said. "We had a lot of stuff going on last year, so last year was totally different.

"We're not suspended -- we can play for something."