Previewing Saturday’s matchup at the Huntsman Center.
By Porter Larsen
With a huge résumé-building win over UCLA on Thursday, the Runnin’ Utes have put themselves in position to grab a bye in the Pac-12 tournament and make a late-season bid for the Big Dance.
The Utes, winners of five straight games, still have plenty of work to do though, starting with the equally hot USC Trojans this Saturday.
Just a month ago, the two teams faced each other in Southern California where the Trojans had their way with Utah in the Galen Center, hitting a season-high 14 three-pointers and winning 84-67. This time around the stakes are much higher and the Utes hold the home-court advantage.
With a win, the Utes would jump into a tie with the Trojans for second-place in the Pac-12 standings, a far-cry from where they were five weeks ago. USC has won their last three games with wins against Oregon, Oregon State, and Colorado. Andy Enfield’s team is playing more like the nationally ranked No. 10 Trojans we saw earlier this season.
USC leads the Pac-12 in assists with 16.3 per game, Utah is right behind them with 16. Both teams shoot the ball well from distance, sitting at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the conference. Both teams are in the bottom half of the league in rebounding, something to pay attention to on Saturday as the team who has won the battle of the boards has won the last four meetings between the two squads.
The Trojans quarterback is senior point guard and Pac-12 leading assist man Jordan McLaughlin. Averaging 12.4 ppg and 7.7 apg, McLaughlin is a true floor general, controlling the pace of the game and running the pick-and-roll with a surgical fashion. He affects the offensive side of the game as much as any player in the conference. He also makes his teammates better – namely junior center Chimezie Metu, who repeatedly cleans up lob passes from McLaughlin and trades them in for highlight dunks.
Metu has also improved his touch around the basket this year, helping him rack up 16 ppg – good enough for 10th best in the conference. Metu’s athleticism poses issues on the the other end of the floor. He’s in the Pac-12’s top 10 in rebounding and blocked shots, joining DeAndre Ayton as the only two players in the conference to be in the top 10 in all three categories.
But Metu is a wildcard for tomorrow because it’s not yet known whether he will play due to a Yahoo! Sports exposé alleging that he received illegal benefits while playing at USC. Documents in the report contain the names of more than two dozen current and former NCAA players, including former Ute Kyle Kuzma.
USC will already be without their second leading scorer in Bennie Boatwright, who was also named in the FBI probe documents and suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Another guy who can create his own shot and will be expected to step up in Boatwright’s absence is Elijah Stewart, a combo guard who can create of the dribble as well as knockdown from deep. The 6-foot-5 senior is SC’s all-time leader in three pointers made.
The Trojans have depth going about nine-deep in the lineup and getting quality contributions from guys like Nick Rakocevic, who notches gets 8 points and pulls down 5 rebounds per game.
The two streaking teams collision course comes to a halt on Saturday when the Utes and Trojans meet for what is a pivotal matchup to decide conference tournament seedings. Tipoff is set for 12:30p.m. on the Pac-12 Network. Pregame coverage on ESPN700 begins at 11:30a.m.
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