NCAA Tournament Preview: USC vs. KSU

Thursday, 4:10 p.m. PST. Qwest Center. Omaha, Nebraska.
The 6th seeded University of Southern California Trojans (21-11) will face the 11th seeded Kansas State Wildcats (20-11) in their 1st round game in the Midwest bracket of the NCAA Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska. The game features a match up of the two of the most high-profile players in all of the land: USC guard O.J. Mayo and Kansas State forward Michael Beasley. While the media outlets and fans are billing this game as a one-on-one showdown, the Men of Troy will be out to demonstrate team basketball on both ends of the floor.
USC is hoping to match and eventually improve upon last season's Sweet 16 run. However, Kansas State and their "dynamic duo" are eager to prove otherwise.
Records: USC (21-11 overall, 11-7 Pacific 10), Kansas State (20-11 overall, 10-6 Big 12).
Notable Wins: USC (UCLA, Stanford, Oregon, OU), KSU (Kansas, Texas A&M, OU).
Last 10: USC (6-4), KSU (4-6).
Common Opponents: Oklahoma (at USC 66 OU 55, KSU 84 at OU 82), California (at Cal 92 USC 82, at USC 93 Cal 89, at KSU 82 Cal 75), Oregon (USC 95 at Oregon 86, at USC 81 Oregon 75, Oregon 80 at KSU 77), Kansas (KU 59 at USC 55, at KSU 84 KU 75, at KU 88 KSU 74).
Conference Ranks (Overall): Offense, Defense, Notable.
USC (Pacific 10): 7th of 10 scoring offense (69.1 PPG); 5th scoring defense (63.2 PPG); 1st FG % defense (39.1 %).
KSU (Big 12): 3rd of 12 scoring offense (78.7 PPG); 9th scoring defense (68.9 PPG); 1st offensive rebounds (16.32 ORPG).
G O.J. Mayo 20.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG.
F Davon Jefferson 12.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG.
F Taj Gibson 10.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG.
G Daniel Hackett 8.5 PPG, 3.3 APG.
Kansas State:
F Michael Beasley 26.5 PPG 12.4 RPG
F Bill Walker 15.8 PPG 6.4 RPG
G Jacob Pullen 9.8 PPG 3.2 APG
G Clent Stewart 7.0 PPG 3.2 APG
USC defeated 5th place Arizona State last Thursday, 59-55, in the quarterfinal round of the Pacific 10 tournament. O.J. Mayo led the Trojans with 23 points and 6 assists while both Taj Gibson and Davon Jefferson added 11 points and 9 rebounds. The Sun Devils, who were paced by freshman James Harden's 16 points, were denied a chance to tie the game when Jeff Pendergraph was called for an over-the-back foul on a put-back dunk with 16.5 seconds remaining. Jefferson promptly knocked down two free throws on the other end to seal the game for USC. Although the questionable call occurred a very inopportune time for ASU, the Trojan defense was the main culprit rather than the referees for the Sun Devil loss. USC held Arizona State without a field goal for the final 9 minutes and 35 seconds of the game.
USC lost to 1st seeded UCLA the following day, 57-54, thanks to a 15-2 run to start the 2nd half for the Bruins. The Trojans had the lead at halftime by a 34-28 count but UCLA freshman center Kevin Love then took over the game. Love scored 11 of UCLA's 15 points during the decisive run and the Bruins did not trail again throughout the contest. Daniel Hackett's two free throws drew the Trojans to within 1 point with 31.6 seconds left, but Darren Collison calmly knocked down two free throws on the other end with the Trojans forced to foul. O.J. Mayo led USC with 15 points and Davon Jefferson added 12 points.
First year Head Coach Frank Martin has used a number of starting line ups throughout the season for Kansas State. However, there are a few constants. Everyone at this level (and next) knows about the sensational 6'10" Michael Beasley, a bigger and better rebounding version of last season's collegiate Player of the Year, Kevin Durant. Beasley is joined consistently in the frontcourt by 2nd year freshmen Bill Walker, a 6'6" forward that has known Trojan guard O.J. Mayo since both young men were 3 years old. Walker, who has fully recovered physically from a severe knee injury last year but who is not quite the same all-around player that he was prior to his misfortune, is a guy that can guard nearly every position on the floor and certainly has NBA ability. Two more players that have started consistently for Kansas State are senior guards Blake Young and Clent Stewart. Stewart is the only steady starting guard that matches up height wise with the three starting Trojan guards at 6'5" although the shorter Young is a very good rebounding backcourt member for KSU (3.5 RPG).
Six other players have started games for KSU this season although only a handful are steady contributors. Of late, 6'5" freshman guard Dominique Sutton has been the 5th starting Wildcat. Sutton, who joined the team at the end of the non-conference season, has shown flashes of brilliance on both ends of the floor. He's an athletic guard who can also play the 3 and he plays the game defensively like a ball-hawking cornerback does in football. 6'7" forward Andre Gilbert is a good defender that plays roughly 18 minutes per game and he is occasionally joined in the frontcourt by bruising forward Ron Anderson (although not often since the start of Big 12 play). KSU will also use freshman guard Fred Brown, a player who has demonstrated an ability to shoot the three at times. Finally and most significantly, solid freshman 6'1" guard Jacob Pullen will see somewhere around 20 minutes of action for the Wildcats off the bench. Pullen, who has started 14 games this season, is a guard that has averaged nearly 10 points per game in his first campaign and has had some of his highest scoring outputs against the Big 12's best (career-high 20 points vs. Kansas, 19 points vs. Texas).
Ted Venegas is a long time contributor to Here are Ted's thoughts on the match-ups when USC battles Kansas State:
When the Trojans Have the Ball
Defensively, the Wildcats play a man-to-man help scheme and they aggressively help when the opposing team penetrates. They will occasionally throw out a 2-3 zone as well. KSU doesn't double the post all of the time, and they have allowed some of the big men that they've played to get big numbers. Their style of pressuring the basketball also leads to a lot of dribble penetration and kick outs for threes or dishing for dunks. In style defensively, they are somewhat similar to UCLA. The Bruins do execute much better though.
KSU has little choice except to put all-world Michael Beasley on Taj Gibson. He's their only starter above 6'6", and Taj would abuse anyone else. After that, they have to make some interesting choices. Does KSU put 2nd year freshman and the other half of the "dynamic duo", Bill Walker, on his good friend O.J. Mayo and risk wearing himself out? It's more likely that you'll see guard and recent-starter Dominique Sutton on Mayo, at least to begin the game. Sutton has no offensive game to speak of, which means he can concentrate fully on O.J.. That means Walker ends up guarding Davon Jefferson, guard Blake Young takes Daniel Hackett and 6'5" guardClent Stewart will defend Dwight Lewis.
However, Sutton only plays for about half the game, with former starter Jacob Pullen coming off the bench to add offensive punch. Pullen can't guard Mayo. Then the Cats will have to do some adjusting.
In this game, I think you'll see a lot of Mayo, Hackett, and Lewis going to the basket and finding open men. The Trojans will try to get the ball to Gibson, but that could be tougher with all of the ball pressure that the Wildcats try to hit you with. KSU wants to keep you away from the basket, so they try to bother entry passes, and they collapse on penetrators. That's why teams are able to get so many open threes, as KSU's rotation has never been perfected.
Teams only shoot 42% from the field against Kansas State, but they also make a very high 37% of their threes. In KSU's seven conference losses (includes Big 12 tournament), opponents shot 45% from behind the arc, and George Mason, Cal, Oregon and Xavier combined to shoot 44% from that distance. With all the penetration, KSU also fouls their opponents a lot and consequently, they surrender 21 free throws per game. By contrast, USC only gives up 16 free throws per game. The positive for KSU is that they force 16.6 turnovers per game, and they get easy fast break baskets that way. In their seven Big 12 losses, they forced only 12 per game, so taking care of the ball will be a key for USC.
When the Wildcats Have the Ball
For a while, the Kansas State offense was clicking. They were getting dribble penetration, kicking out to open shooters, getting transition baskets, and scoring a lot of points. In their first eight Big 12 wins, they averaged 17.6 assists per game. But teams started to get wise. They sagged down on Beasley more, and forced the Wildcats to make perimeter shots. In their last seven games, the KSU assist total dipped to 13.1, and in their seven conference losses, the average is 12 assists per game.
Dribble penetration is not as common as it used to be, and now the 'Cats are more of a "dump it down to Beasley" team. He can step out and hurt you from the perimeter, and he can make plays down low. He can't win the game on his own though. Someone else needs to step up. Usually Walker is the guy. In conference play, when he scored at least 15 points, the Cats were 7-2. They were 3-5 when he did not. Walker is more athlete than basketball player at this point, especially due to the fact that his development was thwarted last year after a severe knee injury. He has taken over 100 threes, but has made less than 30% of them. He makes up for that by being a good post player for a wing and a great offensive rebounder for a 6'6" guy.
The Wildcats rely on Jacob Pullen to be their third scorer, and he comes off the bench. He is their designated 3-point bomber, but he isn't very good at it either. He is not a good shooter at 40%. It gets worse when you get to the starting guards. Blake Young and Clent Stewart shoot 36% and 35% respectively, and neither is a good 3-point shooter. Besides Beasley, the team's best shooter from beyond the arc is Fred Brown, who makes 38%, but he only averages nine minutes a game because he can't guard anyone.
The key weapon for Kansas State is the offensive rebound. They can make up for poor shot selection and mediocre shooting overall with this. They led the Big 12 in offensive rebounding at just under 16 per game. Beasley and Walker clean the glass for this team, so the Trojans will have to keep a body on them. As I said above, KSU also wants to create easy fast break baskets with their pressure man-to-man defense. They have little choice then to try to score this way. If they are forced to play half court basketball, they are a two man show in Beasley and Walker. No one else scores with consistency, and they get fewer points from their guards than most teams in the country. In that way, they are somewhat like Oklahoma, a previous Trojan opponent.
This game will center on two significant match ups: the more talented Trojan backcourt against their Wildcat counterparts and the entire Trojan team versus sensational freshman Michael Beasley. We expect the virtually unstoppable Beasley to get his; the key for USC will be to limit the effectiveness of the other Wildcat players.
As Ted notes, USC wants to play half court basketball with Kansas State. When defended aggressively in the half court, KSU has a tendency to rely solely on Beasley while the remaining Wildcats end up standing around. The Wildcat supporting cast largely consists of rhythm players, and all of them not named "Bill Walker" can virtually disappear. KSU has seen far too much "one man" basketball of late, losing 5 of their last 7 games heading into the tournament. Ball movement, shot selection, assists and taking care of the basketball have all suffered during this period.
USC Head Coach Tim Floyd will be looking to throw all sorts of junk at Beasley and Kansas State. USC will largely play their trademark aggressive man defense opting to collapse on Beasley and force the other Wildcats to beat them. Floyd, though, is not one for the ordinary. USC may also show some zone against the poor perimeter shooting Wildcats along with their oft-used triangle-and-2 (man defense on Beasley and Walker) or their box-and-one (with a "man" variation on Beasley). We may also see USC pick up the Wildcats full court, a strategy that worked very well against Stanford and Arizona State recently. Picking up Kansas State full court, if done effectively, pressures the KSU guards and allows USC to direct the basketball away from Michael Beasley early in the possession. Further, the Wildcats are prone to turnovers so pressuring the basketball at all times will certainly help out USC. The Wildcats are not great in transition defensively, and the athletic USC squad has the opportunity to really take control of the contest if they are forcing turnovers. As aforementioned, KSU is also not a strong perimeter shooting team (although Walker and Beasley have the ability to shoot from anywhere), a theory that Floyd's Trojans hope becomes law. USC, which ranked 1st in the Pac 10 and 14th nationally in field goal percentage defense, has limited foes to 39.1% shooting from the field, 30.4% shooting from beyond the arc (also 1st in Pacific 10) and 63.2 points per game. KSU has struggled mightily at times against the top defensive teams in the Big 12 from the field (those teams being Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M) and from beyond the arc (Missouri, Texas).
USC must continue their excellent rebounding ways against Kansas State, a superb rebounding ball club despite not having a huge front line. The Trojans have out-rebounded 6 of their last 8 opponents and were only out-rebounded by a total of 3 rebounds in those other two contests. The Trojans must put a body on every Wildcat once the ball is in the air, as Beasley and Walker are glass-waxers and the KSU guards love to crash. As Ted notes, offensive rebounding is a saving grace for KSU, allowing for more players to get involved offensively and for KSU to make up for forced shots. If USC can keep the rebounding totals near even, the Trojans will win this game.
In the end, the Trojan guards are much better than their Wildcat counterparts and this should be a significant difference in the ball game. Mayo, Hackett and Lewis can all get to the basket, a big issue for KSU. KSU does not rotate defensively very well and the ultra-athletic Trojans can beat anyone when they are able to drive-and-dish. Further, Kansas State can be prone to foul trouble. USC must be aggressive yet not out of control on offense, as turning the ball over regularly to an offense that features Beasley will inevitably make one pay. Further, as Ted noted, the Wildcats are able to involve everyone when they are out in transition, and they finish very well, two factors that generally spell doom for KSU opponents. Bench-wise, the teams are roughly even despite KSU's bench being deeper. The three significant Trojan bench players (Angelo Johnson, Keith Wilkinson and Marcus Simmons) each have a definitive role on this Trojan team and each have been playing their role very well of late. For Kansas State, their bench is young and very talented. Unfortunately for the Wildcats though, they do lack consistency.
If the Wildcats play as they did during the non-conference schedule and most of their conference home games, USC will likely lose this game. However, this has not occurred for some time despite the best efforts of Michael Beasley. USC will do whatever they can to pressure the smooth Beasley into becoming impatient and forcing the Wildcat offense to rely solely upon him. Ted Venegas believes that this game will be close early but that USC will pull away in the 2nd half and eventually win by a semi-comfortable margin. I agree with Ted in that the game will be tight early and that USC will win the game, but I see the uber-talented KSU freshmen both playing well in front of the pro-Wildcat Omaha crowd. Thus, the game should be close until the final minutes. At that point, I must side with proven coaching, good guard play and team defense designed to make the opponent one-dimensional (all points that we've been stressing) and pick the better overall team to win this pivotal first round match up.
However, if Beasley and Walker become Carmelo and McNamara-esque, this Kansas State squad will travel to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Of course, Trojan fans are hoping that it will be Davon Jefferson and O.J. Mayo who mirror the two aforementioned iconic collegiate athletes.
USC 74 KSU 68
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