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USC Basketball: California pregame

March 10, 2011 |  9:22 am

Greetings and salutations!

Coming to you from ... the Los Angeles Times' downtown headquarters, but in an hour or so, I'll be at Staples Center, where today at (high) noon fourth-seeded USC (18-13) throws down against fifth-seeded California (17-13) in the quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Pacific 10 Conference Tournament.

This ought to be a real barn-burner, a tight back-and-forth affair to be decided at the end. Why, you say?

Well ...

-- The last two games between these teams this season came down to the final minutes, with each decided by three points or fewer. Cal won at USC, and USC won at Cal. So they know how to beat each other when they're not playing on their home court. 

-- Among Pac-10 teams, California (11) and USC (10) played the most games this season that were decided by five points or fewer. So they know about playing in tight ballgames. 

-- In the last four seasons, the two teams have met nine times, with six of those games being decided by four points or fewer. So they know about playing in tight ballgames against each other. 

-- USC has won five of six heading into the tournament. California has won four straight. So they're both hot. 

-- Both USC and Cal pretty much need to win the Pac-10 tournament to get in to the NCAA tournament. So they're both going to be playing with desperation.   

-- And the fact that it's taking place at noon makes comparisons of a potential OK Corral-esque shootout in "Tombstone," minus any shooting, swearing, cowboy outfits and the like, seem that much more logical. (Not really. But I just wanted to link to it because it's great.) 

But I digress.

Here are some facts and stats to get you ready before tipoff at noon (television broadcast on FSN; radio broadcast on 710):

California probable starters

Pos. No. Name Ht. Wt. Class Hometown PPG RPG

G 2 Jorge Gutierrez 6-3 195 Jr. Chihuahua, Mexico 14.6 3.6

G 12 Brandon Smith 5-11 185 So. San Ramon, Calif. 6.1 2.4

G 23 Allen Crabbe 6-6 205 Fr. Los Angeles 13.0 5.5

F 22 Harper Kamp 6-8 245 Jr. Mesa, Ariz. 14.6 5.7

C 10 Markhuri Sanders-Frison 6-7 265 Sr. Portland, Ore. 11.2  7.4

USC probable starters

Pos. No. Name Ht. Wt. Class Hometown PPG RPG

G 2 Jio Fontan 6-0 175 Jr. Paterson, N.J. 10.5 2.0

G 14 Donte Smith 5-11 180 Sr.* Pomona, Calif. 9.9 1.7

G 43 Marcus Simmons 6-6 220 Sr. Alexandria, La. 4.5 2.8

F 1 Alex Stepheson 6-10 250 Sr.* Los Angeles 9.9 9.0

F 5 Nikola Vucevic 6-10 260 Jr. Bar, Montenegro 17.7 10.3

* utilized redshirt season

USC player to watch: Vucevic

Quietly, or not so much, Vucevic has become one of the best players in the Pac-10 and perhaps in the country. He has notched eight double-doubles in a row and has 20 on the season, best in the league. In his last 11 games, he has averaged 20.6 points and 10.8 rebounds. On Monday, he was named to the All-Pac-10 first team, this a season after earning Pac-10 most improved player honors.   

One key reason Vucevic is playing especially well lately, aside from him just becoming more comfortable, is that he's following the advice of USC Coach Kevin O'Neill by going to work inside early.

"I talk to Nik about this all the time," O'Neill said, "so it’s nothing I haven’t said to him: When he comes out and doesn’t settle for jump shots in the beginning of games and establishes his inside game first, he plays much better."

"He’s more patient in the post," O'Neill continued. "He’s passing the ball really well. One of the main things that’s happening with our turnovers is Nik isn’t turning the ball over much in the post, either."

It is, as O'Neill said, important for Vucevic to get into a "rhythm," and he's doing that more lately by getting some buckets inside early and then working his way out.

"Since I started doing that, it helps, definitely," Vucevic said this week. "When I get a couple shots inside and a couple rebounds, it gets me going and I can step out and do other stuff. So once I get going inside where I’m the most comfortable, I feel confident about the rest of my game."

(Shameless self-promotion: Check out the feature I wrote this week that detailed Vucevic's rise from the son of a legendary basketball player, Borislav, to a potential NBA draft pick.) 

California player to watch: Crabbe

The Pac-10 freshman of the year and former Los Angeles Price High star missed the last matchup between these teams on Feb. 17, a 78-75 USC win, with a concussion. But since then he's averaging 19.2 points per game. The 6-foot-6 guard poses many problems for USC as he'll stretch the floor and not allow the Trojans to focus on California's two inside threats, forwards Kamp and Sanders-Frison.

Simmons, the defensive player of the year, will likely guard Crabbe In this game, but he's a tough cover because of his size and shooting ability. Crabbe has made 54 three-point jumpers this season, third-best all time for a Cal freshman, and he's shooting 40% (54 for 133) from beyond the arc. He is also averaging 25 points in his last two games. 

"Crabbe is a good player. He’s up there with the best scorers in the league," Simmons said Tuesday. "He’s big, strong, physical. He’s crafty. He’ll stand still a little bit and then he’ll go off some screens. He’s a good offensive player." 

If Simmons, or whoever guards Crabbe for USC, does a good job on Crabbe, it will shrink the court. Of course, Gutierrez, who averages 14.6 points, will provide a problem for USC, but Fontan and Smith will hound him all game long and it's not like Gutierrez has played well against USC this season anyway, scoring four points in the first game and 13 in the second. 

Key to the game: Inside play

Neither of these teams are deep, meaning it will be difficult for both of them to win three games in three days to earn that automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, but both of them do have strong inside duos. If USC's Vucevic and Stepheson are able to establish themselves early and perhaps draw some fouls on Kamp and Sanders-Frison, the Trojans will have a strong edge.

But if Kamp and Sanders-Frison are able to establish themselves down low and get Vucevic and Stepheson into foul trouble, California will have the edge. It will be interesting to see what adjustments each teams make in this area since this is the third time they'll be facing each other.

One thing for USC is certain. If Stepheson gets a double-double, the Trojans will likely win. USC is 10-1 when he does, including wins over Texas, UCLA, Washington and Arizona. 

(On another note, regardless of which team wins this game, Friday's likely semifinals matchup against top-seeded Arizona, which should plow through Oregon State in Thursday's quarterfinals round, should be interesting. USC split the two-game season series with the Wildcats, with each team winning at home, and California lost both games, but by a combined four points, including losing in Berkeley in a classic 107-105 triple-overtime game on Feb 5.)  

Lastly ...

-- USC is 12-10 all-time in Pac-10 tournament play. 

-- USC is 6-2 in its last three Pac-10 tournaments, reaching the 2007 finals, the 2008 semifinals and winning the 2009 title. 

-- USC is 1-3 against California in the conference tournament.

-- USC began its 2009 tournament title run with a 79-75 win against California.

Dead lastly ...

-- Expect Smith to have a big shooting day for USC, if only because O'Neill alluded to it after practice Tuesday, saying "Donte’s due to have a big game shooting the ball. He had a lot of open shots the other day [versus Washington]. His confidence looks like it’s a little bit shaky right now but once he knocks down two threes at Staples on Thursday, hopefully he’ll be right back." 

-- One thing people might forget about the close games between Cal and USC this season is that in each of them, one of USC's guards had a crazy-good performance. In the first game, Smith scored 24 points and hit four consecutive three-point jumpers midway through the second half. In the second game, Jones scored 22 points, all in the second half, including 13 in a row at one point. Will it take such a performance from a USC guards again?

-- OK, that above fact is somewhat misleading because USC had health problems in both games. In the first, Vucevic took an elbow to the jaw in the first half and pretty much spent the rest of the game swallowing his own blood. In the second game, Fontan had the flu and said it was so bad at times that he blacked out during portions of the game

-- Baxter Holmes  

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