USC basketball coach Andy Enfield has often made note of — or light of — the fact that much of the country is already asleep by the time many Trojans games tip off late on the West Coast.
The challenge Friday is a little different — making sure his own team is fully alert when the No. 10-seeded Trojans open NCAA tournament play at 9:15 a.m. PT (12:15 p.m. local time) vs. No. 7 Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio (on CBS).
“I told our players, there’s no excuses. It might feel like 9 a.m. in the morning, but we’re in March Madness. You have to get ready to play mentally and go compete at the highest level,” Enfield said Thursday.
To help acclimate to the eastern time zone, USC (22-10) arrived in Columbus on Tuesday — three days before the game.
“We got out here Tuesday, which was big for us. We got out here a few days earlier than we usually do for a trip just to adjust and prep. We know how important it is for that with having experience from last year with a few guys on the team,” said veteran guard Drew Peterson, referencing USC’s tournament trip to Greenville, S.C., last year. “… I think we’re the first game on Friday, so we’re excited to be able to get that showcase slot.”
The natural follow-up question to Enfield was about USC’s upcoming move to the Big Ten two seasons from now, when such trips and tip-off times will be standard.
“Actually, someone reminded us when we landed Tuesday night in Columbus that, hey, this is going to be the normal trip,” Enfield acknowledged. “It’s a longer flight, colder weather, but we really haven’t thought about that yet.”
There were two overarching themes the media in Columbus wanted to ask Enfield, Peterson and senior guard Boogie Ellis about Thursday — the time zone effects and the perception that the Pac-12 and Big Ten, a la Michigan State (19-12), play dramatically different styles of basketball.
Enfield pushed back on that narrative.
“I don’t know what style the Big Ten plays. I think it’s just a basketball game when you get on the court,” he said. “… We’re not really concerned with what other perceived styles are in other conferences. We’re really just concerned with USC and what we have to do to win games. I think players change every year so your style of play, at least we try to adjust to our strengths, so this year our style of play is different than it was last year, the previous years with some really good big men. …
“I assume Michigan State will try to push the ball, they’ll try to shoot 3s early in transition because they have great shooters and they’ll play their style like we will.”
Indeed, the Spartans may not be the quintessential example of the rough-and-tumble Big Ten perception.
“We watched a lot of film on them. They’re a great shooting team. We just got to play our game, not really change anything up, just adjust to taking the 3-point shots away,” Ellis said. “They play similar, at a fast pace kind of like Arizona a little bit., but they’ve got more guard play, a couple bigs.”
Said Peterson: “We know the Big Ten’s physical. We know that’s kind of their thing and a little slower pace, but Michigan State’s actually relatively fast-paced compared to usual Big Ten teams.”
Michigan State is led by quick senior guard Tyson Walker, who is key in pushing that pace, averaging 14.6 points per game and shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point range (55 of 130).
“Tyson Walker’s an elite scorer. He can shoot it with range, he’s very quick and just a really good player … but they have a lot of other good players too that complement what he does,” Enfield said.
Veteran forward Joey Hauser is the Spartans’ tallest starter at 6-foot-9 and averages 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, but he also does a lot of his work from the perimeter as well — shooting a team-best 45.6 percent from 3-point range (68 of 149).
Guards A.J. Hoggard (12.5 PPG), Jaden Akins (9.6) and 6-foot-8 forward Malik Hall (9.2) give the Spartans a balanced offensive attack.
Michigan State’s limited size is a positive for USC, which may be without 7-foot-1 forward Vince Iwuchukwu again as he continues to deal with a back injury.
“Vince is day to day. He had that back issue. We’re hopeful. He may or may not play — we’ll probably know tomorrow morning when he wakes up,” Enfield said.
Ultimately, as Enfield noted, his team plays its best in a four-guard lineup led by the surging play of Ellis, who averages 18 points per game and has finished his senior season on a torrid stretch to this point — scoring 24.3 PPG over the last seven contests.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo emphasized containing Ellis is the key for the Spartans.
“I’m telling you, they have a guard that’s as good as any guard we faced this year in Boogie Ellis,” Izzo said. “And Peterson is another one that’s kind of a tremendous mismatch at 6-9, maybe one of the better passers I’ve seen. So we’re going to have to contain Ellis and not a lot of people have. That’s why he’s a first-team All-Pac-12. That’s why he’s helped them do what they do. We’ll see what we can throw at them.”
Watch videos of Andy Enfield and Drew Peterson talking about the NCAA tournament matchup before they left for Columbus: