USC may have played their most impressive basketball of the season this week defeating Arizona in grand fashion, then following that up with a thrilling victory over scrappy Arizona State. Bob Cantu has taken this team from the cellars to a legitimate contender but can this style of play last long term?
Offensively the Trojans have come alive after posting two 90-point totals this season, playing with a profound sense of purpose on the offensive end. In the first half of the Arizona State game USC looked well on their way to eclipsing the 70-point mark, shooting an impressive 47-percent from the field.
The second half, and especially the final five minutes, were extremely worrisome as echoing boos encompassed the Galen Center crowd. Doubts over games like UCLA, Cal and even Oregon were residual, as the Trojan faithful understands how this brand of basketball lends itself to close finishes.
Regardless, losing a 19-point lead only to watch it only slip away at the end is inexcusable. Arizona State’s leading scorer Jahii Carson only scored five points in the first half and looked out of sync as the Trojan defense was collapsing the paint beautifully.
The biggest knock on the new-look Trojans has been their lack of tenacity on defense. Yet, the Trojans looked like the more physical team on Saturday holding ASU to a season-low 20 first-half points. Bodies were flying, charges were being taken as the entire team was buying in to what the coaches were preaching.
In a tale of two halves, the Trojans once stout defense was exposed in the second frame. Many teams fall victim to these lulls that affect a basketball game and USC is following the mold as it continues to step off the gas pedal and allow inferior teams to fight their way back.
The Trojans held Cal by the throat until turnovers and sloppy offensive possessions gave Allen Crabbe too many opportunities to find his shooting touch. Against UCLA, the Trojans played a perfect 35 minutes but did not have the wing defender to shut down Shabazz Muhammad late. Versus Washington State, the Trojans needed a near perfect game from Byron Wesley, who finished with 20 points on 7-10 shooting, to dispose of the worst team in the Pac-12.
Against Oregon, the Trojans scampered back themselves after trailing by 10 with less than three minutes to play. Despite the curious comeback, the team failed to covert on their final possession capping a painful two-point loss that looms large especially with the Trojans recent rise in the rankings.
Back to Saturday’s matchup, the Trojans were once again crippled the moment Jio Fontan left the game with a five-point lead and 4:49 to play. The ensuing possession Dewayne Dedmon took a contested fade-away jumper from the right elbow that had no chance of hitting.
The offense was quite stagnant with Bryan on the court, and that soley rests in Bob Cantu’s hands to prepare his freshmen guard for this big moment. Bryan played in this type of moment before scoring 10 points in the second half against Stanford, a game the Trojans won by two points.
With exactly one minute remaining the Trojans were leading by five when Bryan decided to drive to the rack with at least 10 seconds on the shot clock and flail an up-and-under shot that was brutally rejected, fueling an Arizona State layup on the fastbreak.
The most annoying moment of the game was with 19 seconds left, when Cantu did not call an effective play that left JT Terrell on an island of two ASU defenders. Terrell resultantly air balled the shot, before Eric Wise luckily grabbed the board and flailed up an attempt drawing a personal foul.
Then on the final possession, an inbounds pass from Byron Wesley sailed past Chass Bryan for a turnover. The Trojans had a timeout in their pocket and Head Coach Bob Cantu should have known better than to allow a difficult pass towards the sideline.
Luckily for the Trojans, Jahii Carson could not convert on the deep three-point shot to win the game and USC escaped with a one-point victory. The late-game play calling was close to horrendous, leaving doubt about a future without Jio Fontan to carry the offense in the final minutes.
The action may not be pretty, mind-numbing down the stretch for that matter, but the Trojans are finding ways to win ball games.