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USC changes complexion of its basketball season by getting in opponents' faces

Increased pressure on the ball by Trojans' guards, along with a key lineup change, fuel a four-game winning streak that has revived the team's postseason prospects.

March 01, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • USC guard Marcus Simmons, left, tries to steal the ball away from Stanford's Jeremy Green, center, as Alex Stepheson looks on during the Trojans' 65-42 victory on Jan. 20.
USC guard Marcus Simmons, left, tries to steal the ball away from Stanford's… (Kirby Lee / U.S. Presswire )

In recent weeks, USC made three small changes that produced dramatic results: four straight wins, turning USC's goal of earning a place in a postseason tournament from ridiculous to realistic.

The first two fixes were obvious.

Senior guard Donte Smith moved into the starting lineup, replacing freshman guard Maurice Jones. Also, the team now rests on Fridays between games, entirely free of basketball.

The other one is vague, but its impact isn't, as it has keyed USC's return to the type of shut-down defense it played last season.

Trojans guards are following strict orders to invade opposing guards' personal space, bodying them up to limit passes and shots.

"Whoever has the ball, we put more pressure on him," Jones explained.

And, voila: USC's scoring defense (62.2 points per game) is back atop the Pacific 10 Conference.

"It's been a great coaching adjustment," junior guard Jio Fontan said.

Coach Kevin O'Neill said he issued the new orders because the Trojans (17-12 overall, 9-7 in Pac-10 play) had been allowing a high volume of three-point shots and passes from guards to big men down low.

In particular, those post-entry passes often resulted in foul trouble for USC's star 6-foot-10 forwards, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson.

"So basically the only thing that could improve that is more pressure on the ball and being in their airspace," O'Neill said.

As a result, USC has limited four of its last six foes to single-digit assist totals — including just six combined in two wins against the Arizona schools.

Also, the Trojans' last three opponents have shot worse than 40% from the field and have scored fewer than 60 points.

And Vucevic and Stepheson have been spared foul trouble, keeping USC's most imposing offensive and defensive threats on the court.

"Teams had been getting into their offense kind of easy, and when you pressure the ball it creates more turnovers and gets you into the fastbreak," Jones said.

But the Trojans have also toned down their turnovers, recording fewer than their opponents in each of the last eight games.

"We're playing high-percentage offense," O'Neill said.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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