The Nevada men’s basketball program tried on the metaphorical glass slipper last March, upsetting the No. 2 seed Cincinnati Bearcats on the way to the Sweet 16. There, the Wolf Pack went on to lose to an even less believable Cinderella story, Loyola Chicago, but Nevada still had reason to hope its time as a national darling wasn’t coming to an end.
It would all come down to the NBA decisions of the Wolf Pack’s three stars, sharpshooting twin wing players Cody and Caleb Martin and bruising forward Jordan Caroline. On May 26, Caroline announced he was coming back for his final season. On May 30, just 30 minutes before the NBA’s deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft, the Martins made it known they would put their professional dreams on hold too.
Nevada’s midnight, as it turned out, would wait for one more year.
Just a few days after the Wolf Pack received their good news, USC and Nevada announced a home-and-home series that would tip off Dec. 1 at Galen Center. It immediately became the Trojans’ premier nonconference home game this season, and the Wolf Pack have held up their end of the bargain with a 7-0 record and a No. 5 national ranking, the program’s highest-ever position in the Associated Press poll.
Fox will broadcast the game nationally at 1:30 p.m., giving a USC program hoping to make it back to the NCAA tournament after a year away a chance to prove this year’s Trojans are better than they showed in losses to the two major-conference teams they’ve played thus far, Vanderbilt and Texas Tech.
To get Galen Center revved up Saturday, USC is giving away sweatshirts to the first 1,000 students who arrive, and hip hop artist Jay Rock will be performing at halftime.
A win over Nevada would go a long way toward making the nonconference portion of USC’s slate a success.
“I believe they’re the oldest team in the country,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “I think they start five fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior comes off the bench, so they have an experienced team. They’re physical, they’re long and they play well together. They deserve their ranking.”
USC is a team still putting it together early this season. The Trojans battled injuries throughout training camp as star senior Bennie Boatwright and highly touted freshman point guard Elijah Weaver recovered from offseason surgeries. Boatwright and Weaver are integrated into the rotation now, but gifted freshman wing Kevin Porter Jr. (quad bruise) has missed the last two games. It is unclear whether Porter will be able to play Saturday.
The Trojans have played tight games with Robert Morris, Cal State Bakersfield and Long Beach State well into the second half at Galen before pulling away late for double-digit victories.
USC has been at its best late in games when center Nick Rakocevic has taken over on the inside. He’s averaging 14.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks and will need to lead a better defensive rebounding effort for the Trojans to win Saturday.
USC is 331st nationally in opponent offensive rebounding, giving up 11.5 per game. The Wolf Pack don’t miss often — they are second nationally in offensive efficiency and 13th in effective field-goal percentage — but they also rebound 28.6% of their misses.
“We just need to stay focused together and kind of slow the game down a little bit, making smart decisions, doing the little things honestly,” Rakocevic said. “That’s the key to beating a team like that. Their team is full of vets. We need to do the simple things, box out and play defense.”
Said USC point guard Derryck Thornton: “The key thing for us is locking in on defense. We can score with anyone in the country, it’s just being able to play good defense, get the rebound and secure it.”
When: 1:30 p.m, Saturday.
Where: Galen Center.
On the air: TV: Fox; Radio: 710 AM.