COLUMBUS — USC’s last two playoff games have followed a similar pattern.
Last week in the Trojans’ Pac-12 tournament opener, USC fell behind Arizona State 8-0 and was never able to dig out of that hole.
Last year in the NCAA tournament, Miami jumped out to an 11-point lead as USC didn’t score its 20th point until there was 1:03 left in the first half. Despite Drew Peterson’s last-minute heroics, the Trojans could not weather the Hurricanes.
So as 10th-seeded USC prepares for this year’s NCAA tournament opener against seventh-seeded Michigan State on Friday at Nationwide Arena, the Trojans want to avoid a similar slow start that dooms their March dreams.
“As I told our players, this is what you play for. This is what you dream about as a young player growing up,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “You’re on the biggest stage and competing for a national championship. So they better be ready. I’m sure they will.”
This season has been one of exceeding expectations for these Trojans (22-10). Opening the season with a Quadrant IV loss to Florida Gulf Coast seemed to portend a rebuilding year, with Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis the only returning starters and many freshmen and sophomores around them.
But USC won 11 of its next 12 games and built a résumé of wins over tournament teams Vermont, Auburn, UCLA and Arizona State. The Trojans played their typical brand of defense, Ellis blossomed as a playmaker and young wings Kobe Johnson, Reese Dixon-Waters and Tre White grew into their roles.
It was enough for the Trojans to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, their third consecutive appearance. Standing in the way – the Spartans (19-12).
This isn’t your typical Tom Izzo-coached team. Only a plus-three average rebounding margin, allowing opponents to shoot 45.0% from the floor. Only one real big man, Joey Hauser, who is a threat to score in the paint.
Instead, Michigan State has relied on guard play and 3-point shooting this season, reminding Ellis of Arizona State.
“Tyson Walker is an elite scorer. He can shoot it with range. Very quick,” Enfield said. “He’s one of their leaders. But they have a lot of other good players that complement what he does.”
The Spartans’ reliance on guards will play into undersized USC’s favor. The Trojans have typically played with one big on the court this season, with defensive stalwart Joshua Morgan starting and being relieved by Kijani Wright or Vincent Iwuchukwu.
Iwuchukwu has missed USC’s past two games with a back injury. Enfield described the freshman 7-footer’s condition as day to day Thursday. But during the Trojans’ public shootaround at Nationwide Arena, Iwuchukwu did not participate and instead watched from the sidelines in plaid USC pajama pants.
USC won’t have much to time to change out of its PJs on Friday. The Trojans’ tournament opener tips off just after noon in Ohio, or 9:15 a.m. in Los Angeles.
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It’s a change of pace for USC after so many 8 p.m. starts this year, and another factor the Trojans will need to combat as they try to avoid another slow March start. But USC flew to Columbus on Tuesday to adjust to the new time zone and ensure it is ready for Friday.
“We knew it’s all about preparation going into a game like this. We’re prepared, getting good sleep, all that stuff,” Peterson said. “I think we’re the first game on Friday, so excited to be able to get that showcase slot.”
No. 10 USC vs. No. 7 Michigan State
What: NCAA tournament, first round
When: Friday, 9:15 a.m. PT
Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus Arena
TV: CBS (Ch. 2)