Bears remain wary of L.A. schools on road trip

Junior forward Robert Thurman is averaging 3.6 point and 1.8 rebounds per game.
Sean Goebel/Staff
Junior forward Robert Thurman is averaging 3.6 point and 1.8 rebounds per game.

There are 344 teams in Division I men’s basketball. They span 49 states and 32 conferences.

USC, of course, is one of those squads, playing in the Pac-12, a so-called “Big Six” conference.

Three hundred forty-four teams, and 340 score more points than the Trojans. There are only three teams — Towson, Grambling State and Eastern Michigan — that score fewer points per game than USC and its average score of 53.8 points.

“I don’t know that the statistics mean anything,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “It’s still wins and loses.”

Losses — USC has many. Kevin O’Neill’s club has won only one game in 2012. The Bears, meanwhile, have 18 wins and would love nothing more than to hit 20 after dueling USC and UCLA in Los Angeles this weekend.

Despite the Trojans’ abysmal statistics — they also rank 343rd in rebounds per game — Cal is not about to pencil in a “W” for their 7:30 p.m. tilt Thursday night at the Galen Center. That’s because even though USC lost when the two squads faced off back on Dec. 29, it was only by four points.

“Just think about what happened at home,” said Cal point guard Justin Cobbs. “We were playing well, and they ended up coming back. They hit a couple shots down the stretch, and it was a four-point game.”

The Bears (18-6, 8-3 in the Pac-12) were up by 12 at the half and saw their lead balloon to as many as 16 just six minutes into the second half. Yet the Trojans (6-18, 1-10) chipped away at the deficit, stalling just long enough for guard Maurice Jones, their only offensive weapon, to heat up. The 5-foot-7 sophomore hit three consecutive 3-pointers to cut the margin to three.

“He’s quick,” Cobbs said of Jones. “He’s so fast. He exerts a lot of energy coming off screens, and he can shoot the ball well.”

Allen Crabbe was fouled on a 3-point attempt with eight seconds left in the contest, and the sophomore guard sank three free throws to make it a two-possession ball game and effectively clinch the game.

USC has only won one game since then, losing nine more tilts as well as two players to season-ending injuries: 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon two weeks ago with a torn medial collateral ligament and forward Aaron Fuller, who had shoulder surgery the week prior. Jio Fontan, last season’s starting point guard, has missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in August.

All things considered, O’Neill has done a serviceable job with a decimated roster, according to Montgomery.

“He’s done a great job of utilizing what he has,” Montgomery said. “They’re still competing really hard. They’re in a lot of games. They just can’t sustain.”

The Trojans employ a five-out scheme on offense, which opens up the court, Montgomery said. Jones has also moved off the ball, concentrating on getting free for jump shots. He averages 14 points a game and shoots just a hair over 30 percent from long range, but, as Cal knows firsthand, he can heat up at any moment.

“It’s hard to pressure him, with him being so quick, you don’t want to have him just blow by you,” Cobbs said. “I’m a little taller than him, just gap him and contest all his shots.”

Still, the Trojans’ record is glaring. The possiblity that the players might look ahead to Saturday’s matchup with UCLA — no longer the powerhouse it once was but still a name-brand team — worries Montgomery.

“That is a constant concern,” he said.

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