Cal returns to Haas Pavilion on Thursday after dropping two games in Washington last week. They will need a victory over the visiting USC Trojans to even up their conference record at 7-7. USC is 13-12 on the year, 5-7 and 8th in the Pac-10.
Despite their struggles in the Pac-10, the Trojans are still a dangerous club. They beat a Texas team that you might recognize, and are ranked higher than the Bears by Ken Pomeroy rankings (#60 vs. #67). But this is clearly a different team we’ve seen in Pac-10 play. What has happened?
First of all, the team has shown an inability to win a close game. 5 of their 7 losses have been by 10 points or fewer, and they’ve only won 2 “close” games in Pac-10 play. Is it luck, or is it a case of a team that doesn’t play well late in games? A couple things suggest it might be a case of a bad closing team. First, they’re very post oriented, with Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson being the two cornerstones of the Trojans. Foul trouble and free throws can eliminate their strength late in a game. Second, they shoot free throws terribly. They’re ranked ninth in the conference for free throws. Both of those lead to a team that might struggle when it hits crunch time.
So what kind of game should we expect? The Trojans plays one of the slowest tempos in all of college basketball, and have been below average scoring the ball in Pac-10 play. Their defense was really good out of conference, but has slipped to being just fourth in the conference. They will not turn over the ball, and they will hold the other team to one shot. They don’t get many points from the free throw line. It’s not a pretty brand of basketball, but it’s one that wins games. Expect an ugly game, with tight defense on both sides.
Both Cal and USC are big guy oriented, with Vucevic being the best big guy on the floor but Cal having the better depth. USC doesn’t have a big that can match Solomon coming off the bench, and Sanders Frison should outplay Stephenson. Cal definitely has the advantage in the backcourt, as Crabbe and Gutierrez are better than the guards USC trots out. Donte Smith is the only above average offensive guard on the roster, and while he’s an incredibly dangerous shooter he can’t make up for the edge Cal has. Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones are other Trojans in the backcourt, and both are decent players but not remarkably efficient ones.
KenPom Prediction: 67-64 Cal, 61% confidence
My take: Cal playing at home is a big edge, and USC is a team that’s just 2-7 on the road this year. Arizona State is the only win they have away from the Galen Center since December 21st. Vucevic might be the best big on the court, but Cal has the better group of them. Cal also has the edge in the backcourt, so I see the Bears taking this one over the hated Trojans.