Mountain West Basketball: Colorado State vs. USC–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Rams, Trojans meet in Phoenix. Here’s what to look for
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Game 13: Colorado State Rams (8-4) vs. USC Trojans (9-3)
When: Wednesday, December 21st – 9:00 PT
Where: Footprint Center; Phoenix, AZ
How To Watch: PAC 12 Network
Stream: FuboTV with free trial
Odds: USC -2.5 Over/Under 141.5
Colorado State will look to continue the momentum from their upset win Sunday at Saint Mary’s when they take part in the Jerry Colangelo Classic in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday night. The Classic is named for the businessman and former NBA owner, who also oversaw the turnaround of USA Basketball in the mid-2000’s. The Rams will play in the third game of a tripleheader. Fellow MWC member Wyoming takes part in game 2, ironically enough against Saint Mary’s.
CSU’s opponent is no slouch – the USC Trojans. Picked by most to finish 4th in the PAC 12, the Men of Troy are 9-3 and like the Rams, come off their best win of the season on Sunday, defeating nationally-ranked Auburn 74-71. Wednesday’s tussle also marks the final non-conference game of the season for both squads – until postseason play that is.
Colorado State’s fortunes in that regard received a massive boost on Sunday night with a win in a very difficult environment. The Gaels were undefeated at home last season, and that includes a win over Gonzaga. They have now lost two home games in the last month to Mountain West Conference teams, with New Mexico doing the honors two weeks ago.
The Rams pulled out a 62-60 win in a nip-and-tuck affair in which neither team led by more than five at any point. As he has done for much of the season, CSU boss Niko Medved had to juggle the lineup due to inactives. This time it was Tavi Jackson and Jalen Lake missing the game. Josiah Strong did return to the court after several absences, and of course Isaiah Stevens has been back for a few weeks now. It was the definition of a total team effort, as nine players got minutes, and all contributed in some form. Jackson and Lake are not expected to be out long, but with MWC play starting right after Christmas, it’s unknown at this point if they will dress on Wednesday.
Stevens was the best player on the floor versus the Gaels, as his 23 point/5 assist line will show. But the real encouraging sign for Colorado State fans is the fact that he played 39 minutes, the most he has logged since returning from his foot injury. He also did it while guarded by Logan Johnson, one of the best defenders in the WCC. He should not expect the task to get any easier on Wednesday, as USC has their own lock-down defender in Kobe Johnson. The 6’6” sophomore is an occasional starter, but averages 23 minutes per game. He also has 29 steals on the season, which puts him in the 25 in the nation, not bad for a spot starter. His length and athleticism could pose problems for Stevens.
Luckily for the Rams, John Tonje has been consistent scoring the basketball all season, pitching in 17 in the recent win. He has posted incredibly efficient shooting splits; 50% from the field, 43% from 3, and 80% from the foul line, adding up to his 15 points a game. It should be noted that Stevens is hitting 60% of his threes as well, and Isaiah Rivera 48%. As a team, CSU connects on 40%, a very high number. Their offensive metrics are outstanding, showing high marks in overall efficiency, 2-point efficiency, and 3-point efficiency. Additionally they have taken great care of the basketball, and share the ball willingly. They rank top 20 in assists per game, and number two in the entire country in assist to turnover ratio. All of these numbers will be massively tested against USC’s defense, as we’ll dig into in a minute. There is one area the Rams sorely lack in, and that is offensive rebounds. Part of this is due to the hot shooting to start the season, while some of it can be attributed to Medved’s preference to bypass offensive boards, get back on defense, and prevent easy transition baskets.
To say this game is strength on strength would be an understatement. As good as Colorado State has been offensively, USC has been even better defensively. Their ratings in field goal defensive categories are higher than the Rams respective offensive numbers. Kobe Johnson has already been discussed as a versatile defender on the perimeter, and he has help on the interior from Joshua Morgan. The 6’11” junior is top five in the nation in blocks, swatting away an impressive 3 per game. He has been an admirable fill-in for Vince Iwuchukwu, a 5-star recruit who collapsed in a summer workout and has not been medically cleared. The 7-footer was expected to be next in a long line of veteran coach Andy Enfield’s stable of rim protecting bigs. Instead, Morgan has made a nice 4th-year leap and is a huge deterrent for opposing guards and wings wanting to attack the rim. The Trojans have held teams to 38% shooting from the field this year. Enfield will play a lot of zone and is also excellent at switching defenses if he feels the opponent is getting too comfortable, something Medved will be keenly aware of.
As for SC’s offensive options, they have several. There are three double-figure scorers, with Boogie Ellis leading the way (15 ppg). Ellis poured in a game high 28 against Auburn. Reese Dixon-Waters chips in 10 per night. But arguably the most valuable player for the Trojans is Drew Peterson. The 5th-year senior is one of only two players in the country to average 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. He can score in a multitude of ways, posting up smaller defenders, attacking the basket, or knocking down an occasional jump shot, though he has been somewhat inconsistent from deep this year. One knock on the three guards is that they can all be a bit turnover prone. They also do not utilize the three-pointer as a major weapon, in contrast to so many teams in today’s college game. A very low % of their shot attempts come from deep, and they don’t have a dead-eye shooter, but any of their scorers are capable of knocking a couple down.
With only a few dates left on the calendar before conference play begins, this is one of the last opportunities for the Mountain West to boost their profile. It’s been a great start to the season for the conference, with very few bad losses, and several resumé worthy wins. This would certainly qualify as another of those were the Rams to pull it off. Both teams are coming off physical, down-to-the-wire wins on Sunday, so we may see a little slower pace here, especially if Jackson and Lake are no-gos for CSU. The Trojans, for all their talent, are not particularly deep to begin with, as only 6 players average more than 12 minutes a game. The Rams have 10 such players, but again may not have all available tonight.
This looks as though it is a tough ask for Colorado State. They have seen one, maybe two competent defenses this season, and while they escaped Moraga with a win on Sunday, the Gaels don’t possess the firepower the Trojans do. Much of the rest of CSU’s impressive offensive start is the product of a few blowouts against overmatched teams. The one area USC can be exposed in is defensive rebounding, as it’s always more difficult to rebound out of a zone. But this likely won’t be an advantage for the Rams as they punt the offensive glass. Even if Stevens gets into the 20’s tonight, this seems like a game where the supporting cast has trouble. CSU has not seen much zone this year, and that oftentimes takes some adjusting. Though Colorado State has played a solid schedule, USC has been tested a bit more, fighting off Auburn, and taking top-ten Tennessee to overtime before falling. Medved will come up with a game plan to force the Trojans into making jump shots, not their strength, but USC’s defense is the best unit on the floor in this one, and probably just enough to hold off the Rams.
Prediction: USC 66 Colorado State 61