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USC aims to attack Oregon State zone Saturday

The Trojans will try to break the spell the Beavers' 1-3-1 zone has had on them.

January 14, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC's Donte Smith, left, and Nikola Vucevic put pressure on Oregon's Johnathan Loyd during the second half of the Trojans' 68-62 loss Thursday. USC will be looking to crack Oregon State's zone defense on Saturday.
USC's Donte Smith, left, and Nikola Vucevic put pressure on Oregon's… (Steve Dykes / Getty Images )

Reporting from Corvallis, Ore. — Few basketball coaches use a 1-3-1 zone defense. Too risky. It can win its employer games and lose them just as easily. It's seductive, but it's unfaithful. And that's why it's rare.

But Oregon State Coach Craig Robinson swears by the high-risk, high-reward half-court trapping scheme that can cause turnovers and produce fastbreak baskets.

So far this season, his Beavers (7-9, 2-3 in Pacific 10 Conference play) have produced the statistics to indicate it works — they lead the nation in steals (11.1) — but not the wins to indicate the defensive scheme is worth keeping.

Except against USC (10-7, 2-2), the team the Beavers play here Saturday night.

Oregon State beat USC in both meetings last season behind that pesky 1-3-1. It helped force USC into a combined 38 turnovers and limited the Trojans to two of their lowest-scoring games a year ago (44 and 45 points).

To be sure, USC struggles against any zone defense. But the 1-3-1's aggressive style — it double-team guards, forcing them to loft passes that are easily intercepted — also made the Trojans passive on offense, as if the pressure wilted them.

USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said that needs to change.

"We've got to attack the basket, and don't let their aggressiveness overshadow our force on offense," he said.

O'Neill called Oregon a "strip-steal" team that has both talent and experience in its system, led by explosive sophomore guard Jared Cunningham, who ranks second nationally in steals (3.3).

Still, if properly exploited, a 1-3-1 can crumble, leading to easy baskets.

O'Neill said USC has better ballhandlers this season in junior guard Jio Fontan and freshman Maurice Jones to make that happen.

"We've got to penetrate," Jones said, "get into the lane, get some short jumpers, layups, and just attack."

Jones said the Trojans are especially ready to do that after their passive play dug them a 20-point hole in Thursday's 68-62 loss at Oregon.

Slow start revisited

There are some explanations for USC's poor start against Oregon.

For example, the Trojans sat for about 30 minutes while pregame festivities celebrated the opening of Matthew Knight Arena, perhaps leaving them cold come tipoff.

But Fontan said USC's all-around stagnant play was a result of its struggles on offense, particularly not being able run the offense through junior forward Nikola Vucevic.

"That's how our offense is, we go through Nik," Fontan said, "so it's a little different when they take away your go-to-player."

Fontan said USC was too focused on involving Vucevic, who finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, "rather than take advantage of other opportunities."

By the time USC's offense began clicking, there wasn't much time left to complete a comeback.

O'Neill said when USC's offense struggles and that dictates its defensive effort, "we have slow starts." His message, then: Defense leads to offense — in that order.

Homecoming for Jackson

When USC's plane touched down in Portland on Wednesday night, it was raining.

"Felt like home," said freshman forward Garrett Jackson, a Portland native.

Jackson said he was able to hang out with a few family members — he has younger twin brothers and two half-sisters in the area — on Friday.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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