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LONNIE WHITE'S INSIDE THE LINES

Matchups key for Trojans

March 23, 2007|Lonnie White

From USC finding open shooting lanes in an easy victory over Arkansas to its dominant defensive effort in a rout over Kevin Durant and Texas, Coach Tim Floyd's NBA influence of exploiting matchups has been a major force behind the Trojans' tournament success.

But this game-to-game strategy will face an all-new challenge against North Carolina tonight in a NCAA tournament Sweet 16 matchup at East Rutherford, N.J.

During the regular season, USC was able to combat Stanford's 7-foot Lopez twins by starting 6-foot-11 sophomore RouSean Cromwell and using 6-10-and-versatile Keith Wilkerson off the bench. And in two regular-season wins over Oregon, the Trojans' deep guard rotation did a great job against the high-scoring Ducks backcourt of Aaron Brooks and Tajuan Porter.

Combine those forces and you have what USC will be facing in North Carolina, which shoots better than 50% from the field and has the interior force of Stanford and the athletic playmakers of Oregon.

In tournament victories over Eastern Kentucky and Michigan State, North Carolina rolled behind Tyler Hansbrough's inside power and speedy freshman point guard Ty Lawson's perimeter play.

But the Tar Heels' biggest weapon has been their transition game, which relies heavily on the rebounding of Hansbrough and freshman forward Brandan Wright.

The Trojans have to find a way to limit North Carolina's easy baskets. Perimeter players Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young, Lodrick Stewart, Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis must not only make smart decisions with the ball but also be disciplined enough to get back on defense to hamper North Carolina's Lawson-led fastbreaks.

Against Texas, Pruitt did a masterful defensive job on point guard D.J. Augustin, and he will probably defend Lawson. If Pruitt is able to make Lawson work to get the ball and limit his penetration into the lane, that might leave North Carolina relying on its shaky half-court game.

That's where the Trojans could have an edge -- their defense does a good job taking away an opponent's strength.

Against North Carolina, the player to watch is Hansbrough, coming off two strong games in the tournament. When he gets the ball inside, look for the Trojans to use an assortment of double teams with freshman Taj Gibson as the second defender.

If the Trojans' interior length gives Hansbrough trouble, North Carolina will have to score from the outside -- not a team strength. Reyshawn Terry is the only player to shoot better than 38% from three-point range, and as a team the Tar Heels are 36% on three-point attempts.

Summary: North Carolina Coach Roy Williams has a roster filled with talented young players, but so does Floyd. If the Tar Heels struggle early, the Trojans will be ready to pull off an upset.

lonnie.white@latimes.com

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