USC must stop Providence's Kris Dunn in NCAA opener

One of the most feared players in college basketball took the court here Wednesday evening for a light shoot-around.

Down the tunnel, in USC's locker room, the player assigned to contain him noted his opponent's attire.

Providence's Kris Dunn was wearing shorts. Regular, no-frills basketball shorts.

See the most-read stories in Sports this hour>>

"He puts his shorts on just like I do," USC guard Julian Jacobs observed with a laugh.

USC's surprising season continues Thursday with a first-round NCAA tournament game against Providence. In their first postseason appearance since 2011, the Trojans (21-12) are seeded No. 8 in the East Region, one notch higher than the Friars (23-10).

But the 6-foot-4 Dunn might be the most talented player at a subregional that includes North Carolina and Virginia, a pair of No. 1-seeded teams.

After Dunn won the Big East Conference player-of-the-year award last season as a junior, his coach, Ed Cooley, advised him to enter the NBA draft. Dunn decided to return to school. He earned another Big East player-of-the-year award with averages of 16 points and 6.4 assists, and is projected to be a high lottery pick in June's draft.

Watching Dunn, USC has been reminded of Utah's Delon Wright, the 20th pick overall by Toronto in the 2015 NBA draft.

"I think he's a little more explosive than Delon," guard Katin Reinhardt said.

Jacobs called Dunn "the best point guard in the country." But he also said playing against Dunn was "a dream matchup."

The challenge could provide a showcase for USC's backcourt.

The Trojans are among the most balanced teams in the tournament. Five players average in double figures, and a sixth is at 9.8 points a game.

"No one's a star," Dunn said. "But they all play like they are."

In crunch time, USC typically relies on its point guards, Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin. In the Trojans' last game, a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Conference tournament quarterfinals, the pair distributed less and attacked the rim with conviction.

Jacobs shot more than he had all season. He scored 16 points with eight rebounds and six assists. McLaughlin scored 20 points in the second half.

"Me and Jordan will have to play well in order for this team to win," Jacobs said. "Absolutely."

McLaughlin said the offense "starts with us." But, he added, "it ends with all of us."

That USC has even made it this far qualifies as a surprise because preseason projections had the Trojans once again toward the bottom of the conference standings. USC went 23-41 in its first two seasons under Andy Enfield as the new coach cobbled together a roster.

On Wednesday, Jacobs was asked how the team dealt with all those defeats.

"Honestly, it was miserable," Jacobs said. "I've never been a part of a team that was the laughingstock of a conference like we were our first two years."

Before this season, the players believed they had the talent to compete, even if few others agreed.

USC blitzed teams early with a blistering tempo and a dunk-happy offense. It was the style Enfield cultivated at Florida Gulf Coast, when, in 2013, the Eagles reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed.

Enfield was asked Wednesday if his 2013 team's "Dunk City" offense could translate to a power-conference team.

"Have you seen our team play yet?" Enfield said, smiling. "Get some game film and you tell me."

Dunn said USC would be the most athletic team Providence had faced, especially in the frontcourt. The best way to neutralize that, he said, would be to draw fouls early.

USC's frontcourt could be under extra pressure to avoid foul trouble because the Trojans probably will be without forward Darion Clark, who is recovering from a dislocated right shoulder.

The Trojans' late-season swoon coincided with Clark's absence. The Trojans were 19-7 in games Clark played and 2-5 when he didn't.

And USC must not only stop Dunn. Forward Ben Bentil led the Big East in scoring (21.2 points a game).

Clark, arm in a sling, watched from the sideline Wednesday as the Trojans went through a light workout. They kept things loose, and toward the end held an impromptu dunk contest.

"Hopefully we enjoy the moment," Jacobs said. "But we're not just happy to be here."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
69°