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USC men’s basketball team aims to snap out of road funk against first-place Washington

USC men’s basketball team aims to snap out of road funk against first-place Washington
USC's Nick Rakocevic, shooting against Stanford's Josh Sharma this month, has much better stats at home than on the road. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The USC men’s basketball team is 1-6 away from Galen Center, with the victory coming against Missouri State. The Trojans are 11-2 at home, including 5-0 in Pac-12 Conference play.

It may be simplistic, but diagnosing the disparity can start here:

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Junior center Nick Rakocevic averages 10.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game away from Galen. At home, he averages 18.6 points and 11 rebounds, which led to him winning Pac-12 player-of-the-week honors twice in a three-week span.

After his latest home double-double Thursday night against Arizona, Rakocevic gave the matter some thought.

“I’m not really sure, honestly,” he said. “The more people are here, the better I feel like I play. I’m such a big-energy guy and I feel the crowd’s energy. That might have something to do with it. I like the rims here, I guess.”

Wednesday night’s game at first-place Washington, which is 7-0 in the Pac-12, is a prove-it moment for the Trojans as a team coming off blowouts of traditional league bullies UCLA and Arizona, and a thrilling tussle with Arizona State won on a Bennie Boatwright three-point basket. If USC is going to show that it belongs in consideration for the NCAA tournament, the time is now.

Individually, Rakocevic is facing a similar conflict as the team. When he is on, he is one of the best big men in the conference, nearly impossible to keep off the offensive glass and able to find a multitude of ways to score. To complete his evolution as a player and rise to the level of first-team All-Pac-12, though, he has to be able to do it no matter where the game is played.

So far in his USC career, the Trojans’ energy guy has been sapped by the intensity of opposing crowds and played out of character.

“I was just kind of rushing a lot in the Oregon trip, getting in foul trouble,” Rakocevic said. “Coach [Andy] Enfield made a very big point of emphasis that I just need to stay out of foul trouble. Just put that in my brain that no matter what, play good defense, but you need to stay out of foul trouble. The biggest thing is just patience, trusting that my teammates are going to find me.”

Washington plays a 2-3 zone in the mold of Syracuse, where Huskies coach Mike Hopkins spent most of his career as an assistant to Jim Boeheim. The Huskies will clamp down on Rakocevic and aim to keep him from catching it in his favorite spots.

To Enfield, the first step is Rakocevic staying on the court so he can get into the flow of the game and not have to force the issue.

“He’s doing a good job of playing within our system,” Enfield said. “When he does that, he looks like a very good basketball player.”

UP NEXT

AT WASHINGTON

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Alaska Airlines Arena.

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On the air: TV: FS1; Radio: 710 AM.

Update: The Huskies (16-4, 7-0 in the Pac-12) are starting to look like the clear front-runner for the Pac-12 regular-season championship and are taking on the league's NCAA tournament hopes onto their shoulders. Washington is led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, who averages 17.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

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