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USC basketball: Oregon State pregame

January 28, 2010 |  2:49 pm

Greetings and salutations!

Coming to you from Corvallis, Ore., where everyone is getting juiced for tonight's USC-Oregon State showdown, which features the Beavers' star guard Gary Payton

With all seriousness, the real star of tonight's ballgame might be Beavers' Coach and the First Brother-in-Law, Craig Robinson, whose sister is Michelle Obama, who happens to be married to some guy named Barack. Robinson took over last year and inherited a team that went 0-18 in Pacific 10 Conference play the year before. But he turned it around and the team won 18 games last season, its highest total since The Glove, err, Payton was playing in 1990. 

Robinson is smart, with degrees from Princeton (a bachelor's in sociology) and the University of Chicago (an MBA in finance). He starred while at Princeton in the early '80s and brings a version of that back-door cutting offense to the Beavers, which, like Princeton, also has orange-and-black team colors. That offense confused Pac-10 teams last year, but this year the Beavers are struggling, tied for last in the league standings with Oregon.  

(Most notable fact about Robinson: As it has been notoriously repeated, he played Barack in a pickup basketball game in Chicago 20 years ago after Michelle asked him to get a feel for her new boyfriend. Lo and behold, that boyfriend would become president. Guess she's got a good eye for talent. To read more about that pickup game and about Robinson in general, check out this Esquire piece on Robinson by the always-entertaining Chuck Klosterman.)

But I digress...

Here are some tidbits to get you ready for tonight's showdown between the Trojans (12-7 overall, 4-3 in Pac-10 play) and the Beavers (8-11, 2-5), which tips off at 5:30 p.m. (radio broadcast on 710): 

USC player to watch: forward Marcus Johnson 

Johnson is USC's hottest player at the moment, coming off a career-high 22 points (nine of 11 shooting) against Washington. He has scored in double figures 11 times this season, including six of his last eight games. The key to his playing well is his energy early in the game. If he makes a couple big plays early, such as a steal or a fast break dunk, he could be in for a big game. If he goes unnoticed in the first half, he'll likely be ineffective. But he is an athletic, talented defender who, as we saw against Washington, loves to be on the receiving end of Mike Gerrity's alley-oop passes.

Oregon State player to watch: guard Calvin Haynes

Haynes, the Beavers' top-returning scorer from a year ago, is coming off a career-high tying 25 points (10 of 14 from the field) in Oregon State's 65-61 loss at California. On the season, he's averaging 12.3 points and has scored in double figures in  seven of Oregon State's last 11 games. His favorite shot is the three-pointer; he ranks fourth in the Pac-10 at 44.2% (34 of 77) from behind the three-point line. Aside from Haynes, the Beavers' next-best threat is senior guard-forward Seth Tarver, who averages 11.2 points per game. 

Key to the game: USC vs. Oregon State's 1-3-1 zone defense

USC is coming off perhaps its biggest win of the season, a 26-point spanking of Washington at the Galen Center. In that game, the Huskies pressed, and USC capitalized with Gerrity, who has been able to turn full-court presses into many fast-break points this season.

But Oregon State will likely not press and instead employ a 1-3-1 zone defense. USC Coach Kevin O'Neill admitted this week that his team has struggled all season against the zone because it doesn't have any half-court penetrators who can draw defenses and find open players. 

If USC is able to knock down some early three-pointers -- likely either by Johnson, Dwight Lewis or even Nikola Vucevic -- then Oregon State might abandon the zone for a man-to-man defense, which O'Neill could only hope for. 

Having said that, Oregon State isn't a very good team on paper. The Beavers lost by 51 points to Seattle University, a team that Washington beat by 47 points this week. USC has also won eight of nine against Oregon State. Even more, USC is in a five-way tie for second place in league standings, and all five teams play tonight, meaning the standings could be quite shaken come Friday morning.

-- Baxter Holmes, reporting from Corvallis, Ore.

Photo: Oregon State Coach Craig Robinson talks to his players during a timeout against Washington last month. Credit: Kevin P. Casey / Associated Press