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Utah vs USC Game Preview: Nobody Knows Anything Anymore!

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This is it for the Utes. We’re in the final week of the season, and there’s still an incredible amount of uncertainty about how this season will actually look for Utah after the fact. It seems like a great miracle that Utah has won nine conference games already. At the same time, it will feel like a major disappointment now if Utah doesn’t win any more games and finishes stuck in the middle of the conference. The constant changing in expectations has taken us to the point where it’s unclear whether this season should be thought of with mild contentment or with mild disappointment.

Very rarely in college basketball do you have a single regular season game that will dramatically impact whether a team has a strong season or a weak one. That’s not the case for Utah when they face off with USC on Thursday. For all the important games that Utah has lost this year, they’ve officially reached the game that, for all intents and purposes, is a must-win. If Utah loses to USC, their hopes of obtaining a Top-4 seed in the conference tournament almost completely destroyed. Their only hope would be a convoluted finish to the Pac-12 season with every game finishing exactly the way Utah needs. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

At this point in the season, one would expect to have a pretty good handle on what type of team is going to show up each night. Utah fans don’t get that type of pleasure, because each week presents a new team with different strengths and new weaknesses to be exposed.

The question is what Utah team is going to show up to play against USC? Are we going to get the Utah that showed up in Los Angeles and proceeded to dominate the Trojans the first time these teams matched up?

Maybe we’ll get the Utah team that was on display against Colorado on Saturday. A team which put of their worst 3-point shooting line of the season, managing only 19 percent from the field on 26 shots.

The Utes could return to the form they had against Oregon, throwing the game away with 16 turnovers. Or they could match their worst game of the season and only score 45 points behind an anemic offense like they did against Washington.

On the flip side, the Utes could match their performances against Stanford and Arizona State early in the season, shooting the lights out and defeating two good teams on the road.

Ever since the UCLA game, we’ve known that there’s a Utes team that’s capable of overcoming large deficits, putting on a dominant offensive show, and playing competent defense. We saw it for 13 minutes, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen again.

It’s a fascinating conundrum that the Utes have left all the fans in. It’s basically a continuous sense of uncertainty. A level of uncertainty can be good if one has some control over it. In this case, there is no control, we are observers whose experience is dictated by that of others. With that much uncertainty, there are two options: leave it or embrace it.

It’s like going to see a movie and the trailers are playing. A large part of you wants to enjoy the trailers and see previews for some dope new movies. However, as each trailer starts, you fear that it’s going to be a horror movie trailer that is just going to scare the living crap out of you and be a very unpleasant two minutes. These situations leave you with two choices, watch the trailer and hope the ominous music is just the start to a movie about friendly dogs, or pull up your phone and act like you have to send a text message for two minutes.

Every Utah game is the start of a new trailer while watching a movie. You have no idea what’s going to pop up on the screen next. You might have a decent idea based on the previous trailers, but you still have a great degree of uncertainty and no real confidence in what’s next. And until the trailer ends without something jumping out at you, you won’t know for sure what exactly you’re getting. Welcome to the 2019 Utah Utes. Let’s just hope we aren’t getting a horror movie this week.

Utah has all the advantages in this game against USC. The Utes previously dismantled the Trojans in Los Angeles, winning the game by seven, but it really wasn’t that close. USC has been floundering as of late. They’ve lost five of their last seven games dating back to the last time they played Utah. All those losses have been close though, with not a single one coming by worse than seven points. The Trojans are also in desperation mode. They need to win both games to really have any shot at a Top-4 seed in the conference tournament.

The Trojans have not been good on the road this season either. They’re 2-6 on the road and the only two wins came against Washington State and Cal, the teams at the bottom of the barrel in the Pac-12.

Utah hasn’t exactly been good at home, but their 4-5 conference record at home is better than what USC has been on the road. However, the Utes have gone cold and are on a losing streak similar to USC. The Utes have lost three of their last four, having lost one game at home and two on the road.

Throughout the Trojans struggles, there hasn’t been one key factor that has impacted every single game, instead they haven’t been able to put everything together in a game and are struggling in different area each time.

Against UCLA this past Thursday, the Trojans only turned the ball over three times, shot 38 percent from the 3-point line and had more offensive rebounds than the Bruins. Those numbers would lead anyone to believe that USC won that game. They didn’t win though. The Trojans only shot 41 percent on 2-point attempts, allowed UCLA to shoot 48 percent from the field, and made only one free throw on seven attempts. UCLA ended up grabbing ten more total rebounds and made 18 free throws on 28 attempts.

The most common struggle for the Trojans as of late has been their inability to get to the free throw line and a failure to make free throws when they do get to the line. In a five-point loss to Oregon State, USC went 0-6 from the free throw line. That game was the first time in USC history that the team has failed to make a foul shot during a game. That’s the type of history one tries to avoid making.

The Trojans are only making 64.2 percent of their free throws on the season which is No. 334 in the nation and third worst among power conference teams. The two worse power conference teams? UCLA and Rutgers. Thankfully, Rutgers is the worst free throw shooting team in a power conference which is in line with the theme that Rutgers has to be the worst at everything relating to major college athletics. They’re in the Big Ten though!

The largest hole for USC all season has been their work on the boards. The Trojans have been terrible at cleaning up the glass all season, and that weakness has been exposed regularly during conference play. In every single USC defeat, the Trojans have been outrebounded by their opponent. USC opponents are grabbing 7.1 more rebounds per game when they walk away with a victory against the Trojans. When USC cleans up the boards well, their odds of winning increase dramatically.

USC has always been incredibly reliant on their more veteran players, specifically the trio of Bennie Boatwright, Nick Rakocevic, and Jonah Mathews. Those three have combined for 58 percent of the Trojans points scored over the course of the season. Since USC has started losing games, their production has actually increased. They are now providing 61 percent of USC’s scoring and Boatwright and Mathews are both shooting at a higher percentage than their season averages in that span. Rakocevic is only shooting two percent worse than his 54 percent season average from the field.

This means that the problem is with the production coming from the rest of the team. Outside of the trio of Boatwright, Rakocevic and Mathews, USC players have shot a weak 39 percent from the field in their last seven games. If we limit the number to the last five losses, the rest of the team is shooting 36 percent from the field in those games.

That will be the key for Utah this week. They’re going to struggle to limit USC’s main offensive threats like every team has. Utah did an excellent job against Boatwright the first time around, and Boatwright still finished with 17 points. Rakocevic had 10 points and Mathews had 18 in that game. Utah gained the advantage because of how abysmal the rest of USC was on offense that night.

If we exclude the trio’s shooting numbers, the Trojan role players combined to go 11-35, or 31 percent, from the field. Utah was far more balanced in that game with six players scoring nine points or more. The team combined to shoot 46 percent from the field, and they were a solid 38 percent from 3-point range. The only Utah player to shoot worse than 40 percent on the night was Sedrick Barefield, who went 4-14 on his shots.

The one thing Utah did poorly against USC was the thing they tend to do poorly every game, turning the ball over. Utah finished the game with 15 turnovers, two more than their season average. USC, on the other hand, only turned the ball over six times in the game. USC is notoriously good at protecting the basketball and Utah has become notoriously “good” at turning the ball over. If there’s one aspect of the game where USC holds a key edge, it will be the turnover game.

The Utes still have plenty of questions heading into this game. While it seemed like we were probably out of time for Utah to do something the worst they’ve done it all season, they showed that’s not the case against Colorado. In this case, the Utes had their worst 3-point shooting night of the season, making only 19 percent of their shots from deep.

Normally, a bad shooting night wouldn’t be cause for long term concern, but that’s not the case with Utah. Part of the concern stems from only having two games left in the regular season to fix things, and both games are going to be of the utmost importance. There’s also a great deal of concern because Utah can barely function on offense if they aren’t making 3-pointers. If that issue doesn’t get fixed quickly, any dreams of a high Pac-12 finish are going to turn into dead hope in short order.

It looked like Sedrick Barefield had finally escaped the shooting slump he was in with his performance against Washington State. However, the Colorado game makes it look more like a onetime success rather than an actual increase in consistency. Barefield was only 2-8 from deep against the Buffs.

Everyone else couldn’t buy a shot either. Parker Van Dyke, who sold his soul to the Lord and received a beautiful jump shot in return, finished the game 0-5 from the field. Both Gach went 0-6 from 3 and Donnie Tillman was the best of everybody, managing 2-5 on his 3-point attempts.

The key for USC in this game is going to be get production from their role players and to force plenty of Utah turnovers.

The key for Utah in this game is for them to get their crap together, start making shots again and figure out how to actually win at home. That would be nice to see. Everyone would welcome that I think. Is It really too much to ask? Maybe.

If you want a prediction for who wins this game, the answer is who the heck knows? Only a fool is betting on Pac-12 basketball anymore, and that fool, and his money will soon be parted. Who do you think is going to win? You’re guess is as good as mine.