2006-2007 USC Trojans
Team Personality: This team is as athletic a team as you will find in college basketball. The problem is that they are still trying to be consistent with what head coach Tim Floyd is asking them to do; namely play superior defense and attack on offense. When Floyd took over for former coach Henry Bibby, he did inherit some talent. Junior wing Nick Young, junior guard Gabe Pruitt, and senior shooter Lodrick Stewart were all still in the program.
However, none of these athletically gifted players had been required to play the kind of defense that Floyd demands, as evidenced by his collegiate stops at New Orleans and Iowa State. For the three of them, their first year under Floyd was filled with significant ups (beating UCLA in late February), and downs (being blown out by those same Bruins earlier in the year). This season, the Trojans are playing with much more consistency, but they are still liable to suffer the occasional “brain cramp” that costs them games (UCLA twice, Washington State, and Arizona State).
Floyd has gained a reputation for becoming more demonstrative in close games. That means more emotional. His team has taken on his personality.
Conference Tournament Chances: It really depends on what team shows up. USC has the talent, the coaching, and the game to win the whole thing, yet the men of Troy could just as easily flame out in the first round. The Trojans have trouble against teams that play defense like they do because those teams tend to be more efficient on offense than the Trojans. For example, USC is 0-3 this season against UCLA and Washington State.
Conversely, the Trojans fare better against more athletic teams that don’t focus on defense like they do. That’s why USC is 4-0 this year against Oregon and Arizona. It appears right now that the Trojans will play either Arizona or Stanford in the first round of the Pac-10 Tourney. They won’t say it, but they would clearly prefer to play the Wildcats for a third time. That’s also because the Trojans suffer against any team with a semblance of an inside game. Stanford drilled the Trojans in Palo Alto, while Oregon and Arizona are perimeter-oriented teams.
Has to be on the Floor: There are several candidates for this spot, including Young and freshman post player Taj Gibson, but the real key is Gabe Pruitt. Pruitt sat out the first semester due to academic difficulties and the Trojans struggled on offense. When Pruitt returned, Floyd was able to insert him at the point position and the team started playing much more efficiently on offense almost immediately.
A bit of background here: USC planned on having sophomore-to-be Ryan Francis run the point (he did a solid job as a freshman last year), but Francis was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting in his native Louisiana over the summer. Floyd was planning on using Pruitt as a back-up at the point for about 10 minutes per game. That unfortunately had to change. Pruitt has always been a scorer, but his scoring numbers are down this season while his assists are way up.
Crunchtime Crutch: Nick Young is clearly the offensive force on this team. When the Trojans need a bucket, the ball is in Young’s hands. When USC needs a stop, they put Young on the opposition’s best player, even if it’s a big man. Young always wants the ball, especially at times when USC’s chips are in the center of the table. He has a winner’s mentality in that he doesn’t let the last make or miss get to him; he plays for the moment.
Straw that Stirs the Drink: Some may disagree, but it’s senior shooting guard Lodrick Stewart. Stewart epitomizes this team. He is a three-point marksman that, when he’s on, is like lightning in a bottle and he’s infectious to the rest of the squad. When he’s off, he can be terrible; not just because of his misses but because his shot selection becomes very poor. This is also infectious and tends to throw the team’s offense out of synch.
Impact Newcomer: The Pac-10 has been blessed with some remarkable freshman talent this year, and no one has been more important to their team than Taj Gibson. Gibson, a 21 year-old out of New York City, basically accounts for all of USC’s post offense and defense. He is one of the best shot blockers in the country, has a long reach for his 6’9” frame, and generally plays bigger than his size. He has nice touch around the basket and knows how to pass out of the post.
When Gibson has a poor game, the Trojans lose; it’s as simple as that. It doesn’t help that he hit the freshman “wall” a few weeks ago. However, if his last game was any indication, he may be past that issue. Gibson had 18 points and 5 assists against California.
Potential Pitfall: The Trojans clearly have trouble with any team possessing any sort of inside presence or depth. Arizona State, which was winless in conference heading into their contest with USC, was able to defeat the Trojans because their two-forward line-up was able to wear Gibson down. The main difference between USC and elite team like UCLA is that the Trojans have had more trouble with teams like Stanford and Washington. This also speaks to USC’s lack of depth. They rely on a freshman guard and an athletic but raw post for their bench minutes.
How to Reach the Sweet 16: USC truly is a threat to make to the Sweet 16 and beyond…if—and that’s a big if—they get the right draw on Selection Sunday. The Trojans can handle athletic teams much easier than they can big teams. If they get caught in the same sub-regional with Florida or North Carolina, or even an Indiana or Pitt, they will be in trouble. However, if they end up facing Duke, Virginia, or even Kansas (who they barely lost to earlier this season on the road and without Pruitt), then their chances become much better.
The Trojans also need to use good judgment with regard to shot selection. They could have easily won at least one if not both games against UCLA this season, but their shot decision-making down the stretch of both games was marginal at best. If they use patience on offense and look for the good shots and get the right match-ups, the Trojans have the tools to go all the way to the Elite Eight.