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USC basketball: UC Irvine pregame

November 13, 2010 | 12:48 pm

Greetings and salutations!

Back again, I am, coming to you from the Galen Center, where at 1 p.m. Saturday  USC will open its 2010-11 regular season against UC Irvine. Trojan fans shouldn't be on edge about a possible upset. USC is 41-9 in its last 50 home openers, and the last time these teams played in 2008, USC won, 78-55.  

Still, that's not to say this won't be interesting.

The Trojans are debuting an up-tempo offense they hope improves last season's dreadful scoring offense (59.6) that ranked 322nd out of 334 teams nationally.

The player asked to drive that offense is 5-foot-7 freshman point guard Maurice Jones, who in one closed scrimmage and an exhibition game has looked impressive, but it's not clear yet whether USC is ready to be a running team. That might take a few games.

And aside from Jones playing his first college game, USC is set to start freshman guard Bryce Jones (no relation) at the shooting guard position.

Bryce, like his roommate, Maurice, also played well in the Trojans' only two preseason tests, showing he's a better shooter than perhaps previously thought and that his athleticism will make him a factor on offense and defense.  

That said, both are freshmen, so we'll see how well they transition to the college game. 

But I digress...

Here are some facts and stats to get you ready before tip-off (radio broadcast on 1260): 

USC player to watch: senior forward Alex Stepheson

As I wrote in today's editions of The Times, Stepheson and junior forward Nikola Vucevic are key to USC's success this season, but in truth Stepheson is a bigger question mark than his frontcourt teammate, who was one of 50 players named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 list announced in October. 

For most of last season, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Stepheson was plagued by foul trouble, turnovers and generally sloppy play on offense, as he lacked a go-to post move when he caught the ball down low.

And while Stepheson averaged a respectable 8.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, he could have -- and, USC coaches say, should have -- been more effective.

Stepheson spent the offseason learning yoga, which he said has limbered up a frame that while muscular looked stiff for most of last season. We'll see if yoga indeed helped or if that's just hogwash. 

UC Irvine player to watch: junior forward Eric Wise

Wise earned All-Big West second team honors last season when he led the team in scoring (16.3), rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.0), the first player in 37 years to lead the Anteaters in those three categories.  

(And that's counting former UC Irvine standout Scott Brooks, the current Oklahoma City Thunder head coach and the NBA's 2010 coach of the year, who played two seasons for the Anteaters, from 1985 to 1987 and led the league in scoring as a senior with a 23.8 average.)

Wise had 11 points and 12 rebounds in UC Irvine's 79-65 loss to Illinois on Monday. 

Key to the game: USC's offense, i.e. Maurice Jones

If he even lives up to half the hype bestowed by USC second-year Coach Kevin O'Neill, then Jones will quickly become the Pacific 10 Conference's premier point guard who gives the Trojans' offense the adrenaline shot it badly needs.  

But if Jones plays poorly early and that impacts his psyche, it will be interesting to see if he gets bogged down. I talked to him earlier this week and he told me he thinks he's coasting right now, which surprised me because players aren't often critical of themselves, specifically freshman. 

Jones has the speed, the court-vision, the talent and the instincts to be the player USC needs him to be, but he's still a freshman who's being asked to dramatically change the culture of a team. Whether he can do that probably won't be known until midseason, but this will be an interesting first test. 

Lastly...

It needs to be said that USC has something to play for this season. That wasn't the case last season when the university imposed sanctions surrounding allegations that former star O.J. Mayo accepted improper benefits in his one season with the team, effectively banning the Trojans from postseason play.

The team finished 16-14 under that cloud, which is commendable, and O'Neill hopes that strong play transitions into this season.  

Injury updates: USC senior guard Donte Smith (sore right hamstring) is listed as day-to-day, as is sophomore forward Evan Smith (left shoulder). 

-- Baxter Holmes

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