LOS ANGELES-This is the make or break part of the USC men’s basketball season. The Trojans can make their argument that they are the best team in the Pac-12 Conference should they go on the road and take down both No. 9 Arizona and No. 25 Arizona State. That’s not even the hard part. There’s still the matter of USC handling crosstown rival UCLA twice before the regular season ends.
That’s probably more than a mouthful for the Trojans to chew on at the moment. That’s because this is just a teaser to college basketball’s apocalyptic games disguised as March Madness. Lose a game here, drop a contest there, and a likely NCAA Tournament seeding could make for an unfriendly result. That could mean being on the short end of a terrible, early round matchup or missing the tournament altogether.
All of the formalities of preseason action and winding down the regular season has come down to the months of February and March for the Trojans. And being in second place now in conference play won’t amount to a hill of beans for USC if they falter down the stretch in their remaining eight games.
Working out some offensive kinks in the second half of their 77-59 win against Cal at Galen Center on Sunday, the Trojans looked like they are ready to take on their schedule challenge. Cal had the USC where it wanted: in a tight road game at halftime. For the first 20 minutes of action, the Bears had forced the Trojans into a sloppy, slumbering offensive machine. This was unlike the first time the two teams played each other.
In Round 1 of their annual two-step matchups on the season, USC ran and hid from Cal from the beginning and rolled to an easy victory on the road. The Trojans imposed their physical presence on the Bears in early January by navigating 22 turnovers in that first encounter. By intermission of that contest, USC had built an insurmountable lead.
If the Trojans had any ideas that it would be just as easy the second time around, Cal said not so fast in the rematch. The end result was the same, but at least the Bears put up a fight…for at least one half. USC led Cal by two points (31-29) when it took the floor for the second half.
The bottom then caved in for the Bears. USC scored 46 points in the last half of the game on its way to recording an 18-point win in front of their home crowd. This game was polar opposite of the Cal-USC first encounter in which the Trojans jumped out to a 41-20 lead before they handed the Bears an 80-62 defeat. In the turnover department, the Bears mirrored what they did the first time they played the Trojans.
USC forced Cal into 20 turnovers in this game, with 14 of those miscues coming in the first half. Still, USC could not pull away from the Bears because of its own sloppiness and lack of offensive execution.
USC’s defense overtook a rather uninspired first half of play by the Trojans. For the game, USC held Cal to just 38 percent in shooting from the field.
Midway into the second half, the Trojans found their stride and didn’t look back once they had reached the double-digit lead platform. The Trojans have Jonah Mathews and Elijah Stewart to thank for being instrumental in winning their sixth straight conference game, something they haven’t done in 26 years. Mathews and Stewart tagged-teamed to score 16 points apiece in USC’s 17th overall win of the season.
Lengthy win streaks in the Pac-12 Conference has been a bit of a challenge for the Trojans over the years. Winning three or four games in a row is considered normal. But going beyond those numbers, is a big deal for the Trojans. How big? USC rolled into its Sunday matchup against Cal riding on a five-game conference win streak.
The Trojans made it six a row with their second blowout win of the season against the Bears.
Now comes the hard part. The Trojans square off against UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, and Oregon in their next four games. That win streak will be severely tested, so will the standings in the Pac-12. USC is only a half a game behind frontrunner Arizona.