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USC BASKETBALL FYI

Trojans try to zone in on offensive issues

Team has struggled against zone defenses the last two seasons and things are not looking much better at the moment.

January 26, 2011|By Baxter Holmes

USC has struggled often against a zone defense for two seasons, and that probably won't change for at least another one.

That's because the Trojans (11-9, 3-4 in Pacific 10 Conference play) have an unusual pair of polar opposite senior guards who push the team forward and also hold it back.

One, Marcus Simmons, provides little offense (5.0 points per game) but is well-known as a lock-down defender.

The other, Donte Smith, is considered a dead-eye three-point shooter (50 for 119 this season), but his defense is suspect.

USC, which plays Arizona State (9-10, 1-6) on Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz., needs Simmons' defense. The Trojans are 10-1 when holding teams to worse than 40% field-goal shooting.

But against a zone defense, Simmons' shooting is a liability, so Coach Kevin O'Neill sends in the defensively limited Smith hoping he'll light up the scoreboard from three-point range.

"It's a tradeoff," O'Neill said.

O'Neill's bare-bones bench is the result of 13 players leaving in the span of about a year and a half: three early departures to pro basketball, five recruits who changed their minds, three players who exhausted their eligibility and two who were dismissed or decided to transfer.

Still, junior guard Jio Fontan has an idea.

"It's just doing a better job on the defensive end of not losing anything when we bring Donte in," Fontan said. "And while Marcus is in, trying to get him comfortable [on offense]. Once he makes his first two shots, maybe his first shot, he's a lot more comfortable."

That will be a key test against the Sun Devils, a team that has lost five of six games and sits in the Pac-10 cellar, but that is also known for its zone defense under Coach Herb Sendek.

Fontan said he and freshman guard Maurice Jones will need to do a better job penetrating to score or find open teammates, a scheme they haven't executed lately.

Etc.

Former USC guard Harold Miner will be inducted into the Pac-10 Men's Basketball Hall of Honor during the conference tournament, March 9-12 at Staples Center. Miner, a 1992 first-round NBA draft pick by the Miami Heat, played three seasons at USC (1989-92) and finished as the school's all-time scoring leader with 2,048 points. … USC is 4-17 in its last 21 Pac-10 road games. … The ESPNU all-access 30-minute special focusing on the USC men's basketball team will re-air Friday at 3:30 p.m. and Feb. 9 at 1 p.m.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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