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USC basketball will need to rely on defense to break that tournament bubble

Oregon State's Gianni Hunt tries to get past USC's Jonah Mathews during the second half of the Trojans' 75-55 win on Jan. 25, 2020.
(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

In October, with eight new players and just four returning, Andy Enfield wasn’t entirely sure what type of basketball team he had heading into his seventh season as USC’s coach. Would they live and die behind the arc? Would they rely primarily on their freshmen big men? With so much roster turnover, the possibilities seemed endless.

Four months later, as USC sits firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble, just one game out of first in the Pac-12 Conference, there’s no mistaking the team’s identity now.

“We know that if we’re going to do anything here in the remaining games, our defense has to carry us,” Enfield said.

That’s mostly new territory for the Trojans in the Enfield era. In his six previous seasons, USC has never finished inside the top 75 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Only once has it finished a season in the top half of the Pac-12 in scoring defense.

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But as USC heads out on its final regular-season trip, with Pac-12 co-leader Colorado awaiting Thursday, defense is undoubtedly what has kept the Trojans (19-7, 8-5 Pac-12) afloat — and what will keep their bubble hopes from bursting over the three remaining weeks of the season.

Isaiah Mobley has learned to deal with adversity since arriving at USC as one of the top college basketball recruits in the nation.

Per KenPom, USC ranks 31st in the nation in defensive efficiency, but it’s the disparity between how the defense plays in wins versus losses that truly informs how important defense has become. In eight conference victories, the Trojans have held opponents to 58.4 points per game. In five conference losses, they have allowed 76 points a game.

USC can’t afford any sort of lull on that end this weekend. While still clinging to their place in the logjam atop the Pac-12, the Trojans’ matchup with Colorado may be their only remaining chance to make up ground atop the conference. The Buffaloes, who are tied with Oregon with a 9-4 conference record, boast arguably the easiest remaining schedule of any Pac-12 contender, with four of their final five games coming against teams unlikely to make the tournament.

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For USC, there aren’t many opportunities left to beef up its own tournament resume. Just two of its five remaining games — at Colorado and next week at home against Arizona — qualify as Quadrant 1 opportunities, according to the NCAA’s relatively new NET ratings. Considering the Trojans are 3-6 in those games this season, a win in either of those Q1 matchups could go a long way.

Dropping more than one of its other games, all Q2 opportunities, could be catastrophic to its chances.

That’s the tightrope the Trojans will find themselves walking these final five games of the season. Few teams are more firmly on the bubble. With such a thin margin for error, Enfield hopes USC’s defense can keep it grounded where the offense hasn’t.

“We’re a better defensive team than we are on offense,” Enfield said. “We still have the capability offensively, but we have to defend at a high level.”

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USC's Ethan Anderson goes for a steal against Washington's Jaden McDaniels but is called for a foul during the first half of a game Feb. 13 at Galen Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The return of Onyeka Okongwu would certainly help matters. The rim-protecting freshman missed last weekend while in the concussion protocol, but could return as soon as Thursday.

USC did just fine without him over a two-game sweep last weekend, as its defense stymied Washington and Washington State into arguably their worst offensive performances of the season. But while fellow freshman Isaiah Mobley stepped in admirably for Okongwu for those two games, USC probably will need both to clamp down Colorado,.

Neither did much to slow the Pac-12’s top offense the first time around. In arguably the Trojans’ worst defensive performance of the season, the Buffaloes shot 52%, while scoring 1.18 points per possession — the highest scoring rate USC has yielded since last March.

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As Enfield considers that 78-57 loss, it’s not USC’s flailing defense that frustrates him most.

“We were just lethargic and didn’t have a pace to our offense,” Enfield said. “We need to play offense with more of a sense of urgency, drive and kick, post up with some toughness, and just play solid offensive basketball.”

Then, perhaps, USC’s defense will take care of itself.

UP NEXT FOR USC

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AT NO. 18 COLORADO

When: Thursday, 6 p.m. PST.

Where: CU Events Center, Boulder, Colo.

On the air: TV: ESPN2; Radio: 790.

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Update: Okongwu (concussion) practiced Wednesday and is expected to play in this game. USC could certainly use him against the Pac-12’s co-leader. Colorado has won five of its last six behind a defense that’s giving up only 52 points a game over that stretch.


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