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Trojans aim to avoid slip-up against UCSB

Trojans aim to avoid slip-up against UCSB
USC guard Jordan McLaughlin dives for a loose ball after forcing a turnover during a Dec. 14 game against Santa Clara. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Top teams don’t generally lose three consecutive games in college basketball, especially not in the fall.

There, though, is where the USC Trojans found themselves last week after succumbing to Texas A&M, Southern Methodist and Oklahoma in a 12-day span. The former two defeats were by large margins, the latter by only two points after a ferocious second half. That comeback might have jump-started USC into a sizable victory over Santa Clara. Next up for the Trojans (5-3) is a home game against UC Santa Barbara (8-2) at 5 p.m. Sunday.

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The Trojans are clearly capable of playing better than they did against the trio of talented squads that topped them. But it’s still unclear where they will fit in the top 25 landscape. The continued absence of sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton has obviously hurt them, and his return remains unclear.

Increasingly, Melton’s teammates have worn gear and posted on social media to support their teammate, who has missed eight games while the university investigates his eligibility. Melton has been held out as a precautionary measure, and he has still not been accused of any wrongdoing in a bribery and corruption case.

The star of the Trojans roster is Chimezie Metu, the lithe junior forward bound for the NBA sooner rather than later. He is averaging 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds this season.

Senior guard Elijah Stewart (10.5 points, 3 rebounds) and junior forward Bennie Boatwright (15.4 points, 8.3 rebounds) should function well as contributing characters when the Pac-12 season opens. Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic (5.9 points, 4.4 rebounds) is emerging as another capable complement. Stewart missed the start of the Santa Clara game but is expected back for tip-off Sunday.

Only one more tune-up game awaits the Trojans, Tuesday against Princeton, before they travel to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic. The Pac-12 schedule then begins Dec. 29, with visits from Washington and Washington State.

USC VS. UC SANTA BARBARA

When: Sunday, 5 p.m. PST.

Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: Pac-12 Network; Radio: 710.

Update: USC (5-3) must not slip up again against a lesser-conference team, as their three early season losses will already loom large come tournament time. UC Santa Barbara (8-2) has started its season nicely against small-school competition, buoyed by a breakout season from sophomore guard Max Heidegger. The Oaks Christian product was a role player a year ago but now leads the Gauchos with 23.4 points per game. He is shooting better than 43% from three-point range and averaging more than seven attempts per game. UCSB’s biggest post threat is 6-foot-7 senior Leland King II, an Inglewood native playing for his third college. He averages 19.2 points and 10 rebounds per game. As is generally the case this time of year, the Trojans’ height should overpower the Gauchos.

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