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Point guard play is center of USC's successes and failures

Point guard play is center of USC's successes and failures
USC's Derryck Thornton (5) in action during a game against Stanford on Jan. 6, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Within the first handful of possessions in USC’s loss to Utah on Wednesday night, coach Andy Enfield could see a disturbing trend developing.

Junior point guard Derryck Thornton missed his first three shots, including two deep ones that are not normally his strength. Enfield had seen enough and pulled Thornton from the game with the Utes leading 7-0.

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“He took two tough jump shots when they went under the screen,” Enfield said. “Our team is very contagious both ways. Meaning when we’re sharing the basketball and making the extra pass, everybody starts to do it. When we start taking bad shots, it seems like everybody starts taking bad shots, contested or rushed shots.”

The Trojans came out as flat as they have all season. But at least in blowout losses to Texas Christian and Oregon, they weren’t playing in Galen Center, where USC had run off seven wins in a row including definitive beatings of UCLA and Arizona.

By the time USC began to play unselfish basketball, it was too far down — 23 points in the second half — to make up the deficit, despite having a few chances to pull within two possessions down the stretch.

USC’s point guard play has been inconsistent, and there seems to be a pretty clear correlation between Thornton’s best games and Trojans victories. He had no assists at halftime but finished with a team-high four.

“We played like we did early in the season,” Enfield said. “That’s not a recipe for success. We have a good inside-outside game, and we’re leading the league in assists. To have three assists at halftime just means you are not playing within our systems and what’s been successful for us.”

The Trojans, 13-10 overall and 6-4 in the Pac-12, have lost all hope of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. But they do still have the talent to get hot and make a run in Las Vegas at the Pac-12 tournament. To get there, though, USC has to get more from Thornton and freshman Elijah Weaver, who had five points and two assists in 22 minutes Wednesday.

Enfield has tried to give Weaver the floor time to show he can consistently impact the game, but it just hasn’t happened yet. It has felt like Weaver has been learning on the fly all season.

USC’s point guards will have their hands full Saturday with Colorado’s McKinley Wright IV, one of the top playmakers in the league. The Buffaloes are coming off an 84-73 win at UCLA that was as surprising, if not more, than Utah’s win at USC.

“Losing at home, it’s tough,” USC forward Bennie Boatwright said, “but it’s two games a week, and we need to come back and win the second game. Colorado just beat UCLA. They’re going to be hyped up.”

Once again, Enfield should know early on Saturday whether the Trojans are ready for the Buffaloes.

“We just came out slow, plain and simple,” Boatwright said. “We’ve got to learn from it and get better.”

UP NEXT

VS. COLORADO

When: 7 p.m.

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Where: Galen Center.

On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 710.

Update: Colorado sophomore guard Tyler Bey averages 12.5 points and nine rebounds and could provide a matchup issue for USC with his 6-foot-7 frame on the wing.

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