Colorado needs a road win to ensure a bid for March Madness. That means they need to beat USC, UCLA or Utah in the coming weeks. Beating Utah would be ideal, but in reality that's not very likely. A win over UCLA would be the most manageable, and while impressive, it's not quite a signature win to lean. A win over USC is the perfect blend of possibility and resume boosting. No one has beaten USC on the road yet this season, but CU has done it before and can do it again.
Last week, I wrote that the Washington Huskies were the surprise of the conference this season. Most would disagree with me and pick the USC Trojans, the team that went from being picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 to being 18-7 (7-5) and ranked in the national Top 25 as recently as last week. I accept this argument but I must offer a refute: If you are surprised by USC's success this season, you are either unaware of head coach Andy Enfield's brilliance or you've underestimated it.
The casual fan shouldn't know who Andy Enfield is, per se. But we all remember Florida Gulf Coast's run to the Sweet Sixteen as a 15-seed in 2013 with an unforgettable up-tempo offensive with alley-oops galore. During March Madness that year, most of the talk surrounding Enfield was more concerned his stunning wife sitting in the stands that about how he orchestrated Dunk City. USC took notice and signed him to a USC-type contract. Upon arrival, everyone knew it would take some time for Enfield to develop his young players to fit into his system. His first two years went as expected as they lost twice as many games as they won in 63 tries. In his third season on the job -- the typical breakout year, hence the frustration with Coach MacIntyre -- Enfield has delivered a superb season for the Trojans. USC basketball is back.
There's more to USC's rise than just Enfield's magic touch, of course. The player development of Nikola Jovanovic and Julian Jacobs has been key to their success. The recruiting of Katin Reinhardt (who transferred from UNLV) and top-80 recruit Bennie Boatwright has been almost as instrumental. But damn, Enfield sure did get the perfect players to play in that offense.
USC, especially this year, is playing the perfect style for a home crowd and their fans should be excited to see USC's push for an NCAA Tournament berth. As noted earlier, USC is undefeated at home and only Arizona has challenged them at the Galen Center. That said, the only other good teams USC has hosted are Washington and Monmouth, so it's not like they're unbeatable at home. USC wasn't very good last season, but CU, a bad team in their own right, was still able to beat them in L.A. without Josh Scott. Yet another contrasting point:
Per KenPom, they employ a top-30 offense, a top-60 defense, all at a top-40 pace. Like Dunk City, they'll run at you, run by you, and they'll jam in your peanut butter for good measure. What makes them especially unique is that they do this with two traditional bigs in the aforementioned duo of Jovanovic and Boatwright. I know of another team that plays up-tempo with exceptionally mobile twin towers but I can't remember exactly who that is.
The spacing USC is able to have on the court with their big lineup is marvelous and it's only possible with their team shooting. Jovanovic isn't much of a three-point shooter, but he's good enough from mid-range to keep the defense tight. Once the defense is tight on him, Jovanovic has an excellent post game and is a superb finisher. Boatwright is a stretch-4 if there ever was one. The freshman leads the team in three-pointers attempted and has converted on 35% of them. That's not the most efficient shooting, but because he lures away an opposing rebounder and potential shot blocker, his shot is incredibly valuable for his offense in its entirety. Off the ball and usually in corners, Katin Reinhardt and Jordan McLaughlin are both excellent marksmen who can light up a team in minutes. As for the full effect of Reinhardt, watch last year's CU-USC matchup and see how the defense (and Tad Boyle) react to him shooting 9-18 from deep. With all this space, Julian Jacobs and McLaughlin have clear driving lanes they can exploit to create easy shots. Those two combine to average a stunning 10.7 assists per game.
If Josh Scott is able to play (and he's optimistic he'll be ready), I like Colorado's chances. I will love Tory Miller until the end of time, but he's not heady enough (yet) to navigate USC's offense enough to (1) contain Jovanovic or Boatwright or (2) know where to be and when to be there when McLaughlin and Jacobs are driving and dishing. Not only would Scott neutralize Jovanovic's offensive threat, but his IQ will be crucial in maintaining their defensive integrity against the Trojans' spread attack. On offense, Scott will obviously be a major plus. Whether they put Jovanovic (their best defender), Boatwright (to avoid foul trouble for Jovanovic) or defensive specialist 6th-man Chimezie Metu on Scott, No. 40 should be able to generate vital points in vital spots in a vital game. Wesley Gordon, who appears to going Super Saiyan before our eyes, will look to bully whichever big isn't sacrificed to Scott.
Away from the post, Colorado matches up fairly well. USC's Jacobs is a great perimeter defender, but he's too small to defend George King, the Buffs' best perimeter offensive threat. USC will have to stick Jacobs on Dom Collier, Xavier Talton or Josh Fortune, which would be kind of a waste of an ace defender, to be frank. Each of those three guards can be great in any one game, but they're too inconsistent to warrant priority defending. Related: If Jacobs guards Fortune so closely that his teammates don't think twice about passing it to him, it will be a massive matchup victory for Buffs. Not to say anything negative about Fortune, but he sure does turn the ball over a lot in tight games.
With Jacobs out of the picture, USC doesn't have many defensive answers for King or Fletcher. We've seen King propel CU to several victories and we've seen Fletcher spark comebacks with his hustle and shooting numerous times, so it's not out of the picture for one of both of whom to push the Buffs over the top in this game. Contrastly, inconsistent play from them (especially guarding the gunner Reinhardt) could doom them.
If Colorado wins this, they'll do so by dominating the post and the glass, taking care of the ball, defending the three, and shooting well enough to keep the Trojan defense honest.
Colorado 76, USC 74