Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
The Pac-10 has been one of the nation’s more chaotic conferences this season, with 5 teams within a game of the lead as the halfway mark nears. Two of these teams will meet in Los Angeles, when #46 Southern California (14-6, 5-3) hosts #38 California (16-5, 5-3). If you need further evidence of how chaotic the conference has been, both of these teams have beaten nationally ranked Arizona St. and lost to historical bottom-dwellers Oregon St.
Cal started the season strongly, finishing the non-conference season 11-2, and opening 4-0 in Pac-10 play, including wins over Arizona St. and Washington. In the last two weeks, though, the Bears’ form has gone south, seeing them lose three out of four, including at home to the Beavers. USC had a disappointing start to the season, considering they were Top 25 ranked in the preseason polls. The Trojans finished fourth in Puerto Rico after losing to Seton Hall in their opener, but later came just a single point short of upsetting the Sooners in Norman. Losses to Oregon St. and UCLA left USC at 10-5, but wins over Arizona St. and Stanford have gotten its season back on track.
Cal has put together one of the conference’s better offenses, anchored by their spectacular three-point shooting. The Bears hit nearly 48% of their three-point attempts; the second-best team in the country hits less than 42%. No team has finished a season shooting this high a percentage since 1988; since 2004, no team has cracked 44% on the year. So much for that longer three-point line, eh? What allows Cal to keep this lofty percentage is smart shot selection, as it attempts 75% of its shots from inside, where it is decent, but not great. The Bears also take care of the ball, committing few turnovers, but they are poor offensive rebounders. Tim Floyd’s USC teams always seem to present stalwart defenses, and this year is no different. The Trojans don’t defend the outside shot that well, which could be a big problem in this game, but they hold opponents well inside, and are good on the defensive glass.
About the only thing USC’s offense has in common with Cal’s’ is that neither takes many three-point shots – beyond that, the two are basically mirror opposites. The Trojans shoot poorly from outside, but hit over 50% of two-pointers, and struggle with turnovers, but are a major force on the offensive glass. They aren’t a bad offensive team, but the struggles on the perimeter mean that USC sits in the bottom-half of the Pac-10 offensively. Cal’s recent poor form is in large part due to their defensive struggles, particularly with stopping shots. Over the season, the Bears have been average defenders, but in their last four, opponents seem to be making shots at will. They don’t force many turnovers, and while their rebounding is good, that doesn’t help when your opponents miss so infrequently. The Bears suffer the ignominy of being in the bottom 10% of the country in both steals and blocks, and will need to pick up their defensive play to compete for a conference title.
Cal’s Jerome Randle is quietly putting together one of the country’s most impressive seasons, and is a deserving candidate for anyone’s national ‘Most Improved’ team. Last year, Randle was a useful player, effective, but not particularly impressive. This year, he’s become an elite Pac-10 guard, making over 50% of his shots, including more than 45% from three, and sitting in the top 3 in the conference in both points and assists. Randle has seen his shooting percentages go way up as his role in the offense has increased, an uncommon and impressive accomplishment. However, don’t think this team is all Randle; the Bears have a number of quality players, including guard Patrick Christopher, another excellent shooter who scores more than 15 a game. Junior Theo Robertson is the Bear’s best scoring forward, and boasts the best three-point percentage on the team, a ridiculous 57%. Jamal Boykins leads the team in rebounding, and is an good inside scoring option, while 7-footer Jordan Wilkes is effective, if somewhat underwhelming, as the fifth starter. Harper Kamp is a backup forward who does almost nothing offensively, but is a good rebounder, and Jorge Gutierrez comes off the bench to provide some solid play in the backcourt.
USC features a talented group of four players that play the bulk of the team’s minutes, with a pair of guards and a pair of forwards creating a well-balanced, effective unit. Junior Daniel Hackett leads the team in assists and steals, and is an effective outside shooter. Dwight Lewis is the second guard, he leads the team in scoring, and is the team’s best three-point shooter, though he is coming off an ankle sprain that caused him to miss a couple of games. Much talked about freshman DeMar DeRozen seems to have settled in after an inconsistent start, he’s an excellent athlete who hasn’t yet fully transformed that into success on the court, a good scorer and rebounder who has struggled with turnovers. Taj Gibson may be the team’s best player, averaging a double-double and fifth in the nation in shot blocks. Gibson’s a good scorer who knows to take his chances inside, and gets to the line very well. Keith Wilkinson and Leonard Washington have shared the fifth starting spot: Washington has been the more offensively efficient of the pair, shooting over 55%. A number of other players have battled for time off the bench, including Marcus Johnson, Donte Smith and Nikola Vucevic.
Winner: Southern California Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple: all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.