By Morris Phillips
Well, we’ve seen this before. And not just once or twice.
On one hand, Cal’s season-long struggles are indicative of their imbalanced roster and the unrelenting lessons an inexperienced team faces at the highest levels of college basketball.
But on the other hand, USC’s story is far more uplifting. The Trojans began the season in the rare clutches of the FBI and a far-reaching probe into the seamy underside of college recruiting. But despite the firing of a trusted assistant coach and the loss of one of their most beloved teammates, the hottest team in the Pac-12 has hit its stride, fueled by a deep and athletic roster that could be termed a fastbreak waiting to happen.
“We’re a 55-foot buzzer beater away from being in first place in the league but we’re 8-2,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It’s a compliment and credit to our players.”
That’s the backstory regarding USC’s 77-59 runaway victory over Cal on Sunday at the Galen Center. Turnovers–bunches of them–rate as the story’s headliner.
USC forces turnovers as if they were running a manufacturing company with the aforementioned as their primary product. Unfortunately, Cal can’t hold on to the basketball in normal circumstances, and facing the Trojans takes that flaw to an extreme level.
Even in a competitive first half in which Cal shot 47 percent from the floor, and led briefly by eight, the Bears turned it over 14 times. Leading 29-28 just before halftime, the Bears shots stopped falling while the turnovers continued unabated.
As Cal (7-15, 1-8) failed to prop up their sloppy ballhandling with made shots, the USC track meet commenced. Just six minutes into the second half, the Trojans’ lead hit double digits. USC’s leading scorer, Chimezie Metu capitalized on a second shot opportunity with a dunk, and the Trojans led 44-34 with 13:56 remaining.
“Once we get our defense going, we get steals, we get into transition and that generates our offense, and the rim looks bigger,” USC senior guard Elijah Stewart said. “We had more energy in the second half, we had ball movement and played together.”
Enfield felt his team took difficult shots early, as a scoring drought nearly six minutes in length allowed Cal to gain confidence and establish a lead. Cal coach Wyking Jones felt his team lost its stride as USC began to dictate the pace.
“We have to do a better job of not getting sped up,” Jones said.
Marcus Lee led Cal with 23 points, but 17 of those came in the second half as USC pulled away. Also Lee and guard Darius McNeill were credited with 12 of Cal’s 20 turnovers.
Stewart and Jonah Mathews led USC (17-6, 8-2) with 16 points a piece. Stewart’s scoring all came in the second half, and the Trojan leaders both canned four 3-pointers.
Cal’s loss was their eighth in a row, their worst run since 1992. The Bears continue to compete, and they’ve put to rest their issues with slow starts. But real improvement can’t commence without better ball security and overall consistency.
“We have to be able to but together a 40-minute game,” Jones said. “Not just halves.”
The Trojans have won six straight, and eight of nine. With play concluded for the month of January, the Trojans have seven wins, the first time they’ve done that since 1982.
Just last week, USC fired assistant coach Tony Bland after he received a federal indictment right before the season opener that focused on illegal payments to players and their families and advisers. De’Anthony Melton, the Trojans’ sophomore guard and NBA prospect, was suspended in the wake of Bland’s indictment. In the wake of Bland’s firing, the USC athletic department announced that Melton’s suspension would be extended through the remainder of the season.
The Bears return to the hardwood on Thursday when the Oregon Ducks visit Haas Pavilion.