Two of the 2017 NCAA Tournament's most versatile teams, Baylor and USC, meet in an East Region Second Round contest on Sunday.
USC set the stage for the showdown in Tulsa with a dramatic, come-from-behind win Friday over SMU. The Trojans will now play their third game in less than four full days, aiming to complete a three-game sweep after their First Four victory over Providence.
With two Tournament wins now to USC's credit, Andy Enfield's team set the program single-season record for victories with 26. Extending that mark to 27 will take an impressive effort on offense, defense and the glass against a well-rounded Baylor bunch.
The Bears trailed New Mexico State at halftime of Friday's First Round matchup, and echoes of early exits the previous two seasons began to return. But a dominant second half pushed Baylor to an easy win, and showed the full capacity of this team when it's playing to its potential.
East Region: No. 11 USC Trojans (26-9) vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears (26-7)
Time: 7:45 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: BOK Center (Tulsa)
Line: Baylor -6.5
Keys for USC
The Trojans fell behind in their first two NCAA Tournament wins by a combined 23 points. Following the same script is no game plan for success against Baylor. The Bears have outscored opponents 1,288 to 1,080 over the course of the season, including blasting New Mexico State after halftime Friday, 53-33.
To avoid an early hole, USC needs to bust Baylor's zone early. Elijah Stewart's heroics on Friday connecting with the corner 3-pointer could again play a big role. And speaking of big, 6-foot-10 Bennie Boatwright's jump shot can help extend the zone and open seams closer to the basket. If the Trojans can successfully establish Chimezie Metu behind the zone along the baseline, that should force Baylor out of its customary zone.
Metu also will play an integral role on the defensive end, both contesting Baylor's lengthy front court on shot attempts, and keeping the Bears off the boards. BU ranks third nationally in percentage of offensive rebounds off missed shots.
Keys for Baylor
With the expection of a road game at Texas Tech, the recurring theme in each of Baylor's losses this season is the Bears falling short of the 70-point mark. Baylor's an outstanding defensive team — No. 12 in the nation in defensive efficiency — but that stifling defense sets up a potent offense.
Though Baylor often relies on a zone, taking advantage of the interior size advantage with 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil and 6-foot-10 Johnathan Motley, BU defends the 3-pointer effectively. The Bears take greater advantage of transition points off long rebounds and quick run-outs than they do generating turnovers.
Baylor cannot let Boatwright, Stewart or Jordan McLaughlin get hot from behind the arc. However, the Trojan trio shooting contested 3-pointers can indeed benefit the Bears.
USC-Baylor is one of the more intriguing matchups Sunday's slate has to offer. Baylor's length makes it one of the more difficult teams to solve on both ends of the floor. If any team in the nation's equipped to address the Bears' size, it's USC. Enfield employed a lineup against Providence that featured Boatwright at wing, and Metu on the post alongside 6-foot-11 Nick Rackocevic. Don't be surprised to see a similar look on Sunday.
USC's tendency to go cold offensively — which happened for stretches in both Tournament wins, as well as in Pac-12 losses to UCLA, Oregon and Arizona — plays directly to Baylor's strengths. Motley just keeps coming both with the ball and on the glass. Guard Manu Lecomte provides the ideal complement both as a ball distributor and 3-point shooter.
The Bears should be too much for the USC Cinderella story.
Prediction: Baylor 75, USC 66