Basketball Quick Thoughts: Kansas Jayhawks


That awful feeling right now? It’s the thought that an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is essentially out of the question as the Trojans fell 70-68 at No. 3 Kansas on Saturday. Normally, a loss like this would be considered a “quality” loss, but the truth is USC needed to win this game to have any shot at a bid. They are now 6-5, and have bad losses on their resume that include Rider, Bradley, Nebraska, and TCU. The Trojans needed a flurry of wins over quality opponents (Texas, Kansas, and Tennessee) if they hoped for an at-large selection, but that possibility is out of the window now.

USC came out slowly and struggled early on. They scored a mere 20 points in the first half, and turned the ball over nearly as many times as they made field goals. Jio Fontan had difficulty finding his teammates and the play was sloppy. The Trojans offense relied mainly on hitting mid-range to long-range jumpers, and they couldn’t move the ball inside. On the rare occasion that a guard found Vucevic or Stepheson in the paint, the big man was double-teamed by the Jayhawks and no points came of it. Defensively, USC held its own with the exception of a few possessions. They dug themselves a hole by fouling twice on three-point shots and not hustling back a few other times. At the break, they trailed by 11, but Kevin O’Neill made some excellent halftime adjustments and the Trojans battled back.

When the second half began, USC utilized a new plan of attack. They were able to pass the ball inside, and then they used the aggressive double-teams to open up other areas of the court. After back to back three pointers by Kansas, the Jayhawks led by 14 in the second half, but USC used an 11-2 run to tighten the gap. Donte Smith was absolutely clutch. Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of Donte Smith’s fadeaway threes last year, but he has improved his form and is playing in a much more mature manner in 2010. Smith nailed 5 of 7 from beyond the arc and hit crucial shots down the stretch to put USC in contention for a win. In total, he led the Trojans with 20 points despite playing only 19 minutes.

Despite trailing by as many as 14, USC had the perfect chance to win this game. With 1:16 left, USC had the ball leading 68-66. Unfortunately, the offense Kevin O’Neill called a stagnant play. Running down the clock until ten seconds to go was a very smart move, but calling isolation and having the other four players stand around was a bad decision. USC’s guards virtually never drew foul calls when they penetrated, so having Fontan go at it alone was a risky proposition. The Trojans needed to create something inside like they had done successfully the entire second half.

Offensive rebounds also killed USC. Kansas totaled 13, but none was bigger than the one with 30 seconds to go by Markeiff Morris. The Trojans, leading 68-66, played fantastic interior defense and forced Marcus Morris into a miss. However, Kansas got the offensive rebound and found an open Josh Selby for a can of corn three pointer that gave the Jayhawks a 69-68 lead.

Down by one, the Trojans had the ball with 25 seconds left and a chance to win. Similar to the possession before, USC tried to isolate a guard and penetrate, this time with Maurice Jones. He ended up getting blocked, and the Trojans still had a chance to win with 6.4 seconds left. On the inbound, Jio Fontan caught the ball and leaned back, only to realize he was out of bounds. Having not played in over a year, it’s hard to get mad at Fontan for not being aware of the court. He played well in his debut as he scored 15 points, and the Trojans had other chances to win. It is just disappointing that with 25 seconds and two chances that USC wasn’t able to even get off a proper shot.

Stat of the day: Courtesy of ESPN Los Angeles’ Pedro Moura: “USC’s three freshmen — Maurice Jones, Bryce Jones and Garrett Jackson — combined to score 2 points in 54 minutes today. Had averaged 28.” In a hostile environment against an elite opponent, freshman are going to struggle. Unfortunately, Bryce Jones went 0-6 and had a few key open shots.

Forget for a second that Josh Selby took impermissible benefits and only got a 9 game suspension. The fact is he is a stone-cold killer. The freshman led all scorers with 21 and was 5-8 from three point land. In his Kansas debut, he hit the game winning shot and heavily influenced the outcome of the game. Now we know why KU fans were so anxious to see him.

On a side note, the officiating was somewhat questionable.  With the exception of the technical foul on Bryce Jones (Bobby Knight thought the call was silly), the Trojans committed pretty much every foul they were whistled for. However, they took their fare share of contact when they were on offense without drawing a whistle. Several times USC went up with the ball, was slapped on the forearm, and play continued. Any time a guard drove to the basket, it took them getting knocked hard for them to draw a foul, while Kansas only had to initiate a little contact. It may not have affected the outcome of the game, but it certainly didn’t make it easier.

USC had a golden opportunity to win this game. Kansas has won 65 in a row at home now, and the Trojans played fearlessly despite playing in an arena that reached 118 decibels. The loss is a tough, tough pill to swallow, but it gives USC hope moving forward that they can contend in the Pac-10. They swept Washington last year, almost swept Arizona, and swept UCLA in 2009. Those teams figure to be the cream of the crop in conference, and USC can hang with them.