A New Year’s Eve showdown in the Pac-12 is set to tip-off with Colorado and USC.
TV Schedule: Thursday, December 31st, 9 pm ET, ESPN2
Arena: Galen Center, Los Angeles, CA
After 23 days of waiting, the USC Trojans (4-1, 0-0 Pac-12) will be back on the court on New Year’s Eve hosting their first Pac-12 Conference game of the season against the Colorado Buffaloes (6-2, 0-1 Pac-12). USC’s program went on pause starting around mid-December due to a positive COVID-19 test.
The pause for USC resulted in the postponement of two conference games against Stanford and Oregon State and the cancellation of two non-conference games against San Francisco and Texas Southern.
Meanwhile, Colorado is coming into their matchup ahead of the game, as the Buffaloes will play their sixth game within a 17-day span dating back to December 14th.
Thursday’s matchup will mark the 20th meeting between the two programs. The Buffaloes currently lead the series 13-6. Colorado has won the last four straight meetings, winning 78-57 and 70-66 last season.
On Monday, Colorado’s standout defense, which was Top 15 nationally through their first seven games, had a difficult time stopping Arizona’s offense. The Wildcats scored 50 points in the first half and were able to pull off the victory over Colorado 88-74.
USC will enter their matchup at 4-1 overall. The Trojans’ most impressive victory was on December 1st on neutral court in the Roman Legends Classic at the Mohegan Sun Arena against BYU. USC won 79-53 and held the Cougars to 19-for-69 shooting from the floor (27.5 percent).
The only loss so far this season for the Trojans was in a back-and-forth battle against UConn, in which USC lost 61-58. The Trojans were held to their lowest shooting percentage of the season, going 19-for-53 from the floor (35.8 percent), and could not capitalize on their final possession of the game against UConn.
For Colorado, senior point guard, McKinley Wright IV (15.5 ppg, 5.6 apg), who is a four-starter at Colorado, is one of the impact players heading into Thursday’s matchup. During his six meetings against USC, Wright IV is averaging 13.8 points per game and 5.2 assists per game.
Last season, Wright IV had eight assists in his first meeting and seven assists in the second matchup. He has taken the steps to improve his shooting and is currently converting on 57 percent of his shots this season, while also doing a great job taking care of the basketball with 45 assists to 18 turnovers.
In the starting lineup with Wright IV is two more seniors with forwards, Jeriah Horne (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Dallas Walton (9.6 ppg). The former Nebraska and Tulsa transfer, Horne, tallied a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds against Tennessee, which has been of the top defenses so far this season in college basketball.
Walton has taken tremendous strides up this season and is making a case to be a candidate for the Pac-12 Most Improved Player of the Year. Last season, Walton averaged 1.6 points per game in just 6.2 minutes per game.
This season, Walton has earned a starting role in the lineup and has been extremely efficient scoring in limited time. He is currently shooting 67.6 percent from the floor and scored a career-high 22 points in just 17 minutes against Washington.
Horne and Walton will have their hands full with the Mobley brothers in the frontcourt for USC on Thursday. Five-star freshman forward, Evan Mobley (17.6 ppg, 9 rpg), and his older brother, sophomore forward, Isaiah Mobley (9.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), have been two of the key players for USC inside this season.
The Trojans will enter Thursday’s matchup in the Top 5 nationally in interior defense, allowing their opponents to convert on just 36.2 percent of their two-point shots. Offensively, USC has done well with their shooting efficiency, making just under 50 percent of their shots as a team which is Top 40 nationally.
For USC, junior guard, Drew Peterson (12 ppg, 4.4 rpg), has been efficient by making shots for the Trojans. Peterson scored a season-high 19 points against BYU, which he went 7-for-10 shooting and made three shots from the perimeter.
Entering Thursday’s matchup, Colorado is looking to do what UConn did and to shut down the Trojans’ scoring. Besides their last game against Arizona, the Buffaloes defense has been Colorado’s strong suit this season and is allowing their opponents to just 61.3 points per game, which currently ranks around the Top 35 nationally in total defense.
Where Colorado will have the upper hand on Thursday will be at the free-throw line. The Buffaloes are first nationally in college basketball in free-throw shooting percentage, converting as a team on 85.4 percent of their free throws. The top nine scorers on the roster for Colorado have made over 78 percent of their free throws this season.
As for USC, the Trojans are the complete opposite and have struggled at the free-throw line this season. USC is shooting a low 60.4 percent at the free-throw line, which ranks around 320th nationally.
Both teams are off to a solid start this season but haven’t had many opportunities to build their NCAA Tournament resume.
After a loss to Arizona on Monday, Colorado will look to turn things around in their second road game against USC during a three-game road trip.
USC has been waiting for this moment to finally get to play basketball again after pausing team activities and not playing any games for over 20 days.
As we close out 2020, this matchup between Colorado and USC will give us a clearer picture of where both teams stand early in Pac-12 Conference play.
Prediction: Colorado 66, USC 62