Shaqquan Aaron stood in the cold outside Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center after USC’s blowout loss on Thursday evening and remarked that he’d seen the Trojans’ efforts dip so low only once before.
“It happened in the Oregon game,” he said. “We can’t let things like that happen.”
The Trojans (15-3, 2-3 in the Pac-12 Conference) have now exhibited their two worst performances, by a healthy margin, in two of their most challenging games. USC lost to Oregon and Utah by a combined 45 points.
Aaron seemed to imply it was a problem of intensity. USC Coach Andy Enfield noted the team is mired in a widespread shooting slump.
Are the Trojans’ ills products of those temporary problems? Or has USC, after cruising to a 14-0 start against a modest schedule, been exposed?
A game against Colorado (10-7, 0-4) will provide more clarity, but the answer is somewhere in between.
Despite a poor reputation, USC’s early schedule was respectable. Its nonconference strength of schedule was 128th out of 351 teams, according to CBS Sports, and it ranked sixth among Pac-12 teams.
But the schedule’s strength came from a lack of bottom-dwelling teams. USC was mostly untested by top talent. It faced just one team in the Ratings Percentage Index top-50 early, No. 34 Southern Methodist, and came away with an impressive road win.
That was just one data point. Its lack of competitiveness against other top teams like Oregon (No. 10 in RPI) and Utah (No. 96, but improving markedly after David Collette, the team’s leading scorer, and Sedrick Barefield, the team’s top reserve, became eligible in mid-December) suggest USC might not be as impressive as its undefeated start indicated.
But there is evidence that the Trojans’ three losses represented anomalies rather than a fundamental weakness. The absence of forward Bennie Boatwright, who has missed 11 games with a knee injury, has left an unfillable void, and USC won’t reach its potential until he returns.
And USC has shot abysmally during its recent swoon. Against Oregon, the Trojans shot 31%, their lowest mark of the season. It wasn’t that much better in Utah, where the team shot less than 37%, its third-lowest mark of the season.
“We have quite a few players on our team that are struggling offensively,” Enfield said. “So I think they’re getting frustrated in themselves.”
“Everyone goes through slumps; everyone goes through streakiness during the season,” Enfield said. “Even the best of players. And they’re good players.”
Aaron argued that USC has typically competed hard. He said the Oregon and Utah games were an exception. But he did note that conference play can exacerbate bad habits.
“Teams scout you, so they’re going to know what you’re going to run,” he said. “It comes down to who plays harder.”
One unusual trend that could not be attributed to scouting: USC has struggled at the free-throw line. The Trojans made 10 of 21 against California, which cost USC a victory. Against Utah, USC improved — but not by much, making 14 of 26.
Again, such struggles are uncharacteristic. USC was shooting 74.5% from the free-throw line before its last two games. The team has finished over 70% just twice in the last 30 seasons.
“There’s no magic formula,” Enfield said. “Players have to have confidence in themselves, and they have to go play and produce. The only person that shoots that shot is them.”
USC VS. COLORADO
When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Coors Events Center
On the air: TV: ESPNU. Radio: 690.
Update: When USC defeated Colorado, 79-72, last season, it ended a long drought. The Trojans hadn’t won against Colorado since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12 Conference. They had begun 0-7. That win was essential for USC: It broke up a prolonged skid. This season could again provide a needed breath of fresh air. USC has lost three of its previous four games, most recently a miserable 86-64 loss to Utah. … Colorado has fared even worse, at 0-4 to start conference play. The Buffaloes remain formidable at home, where they are 7-2 with lone losses coming to Colorado State (72-58) and in their most recent contest against UCLA (104-89). … Derrick White leads the team with 16 points and 3.9 steals per game. Xavier Johnson averages 15.1 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand