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Penn State vs. USC Preview: Lions Look to Escape Charleston With That Winning Feeling

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A Trojan team filled with talented but streaky underclassmen makes this outcome hard to predict.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Who: USC Trojans (2-2)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: TD Arena, Charleston, SC
TV: ESPN3.com
KenPom Rank: 198
Vegas Line: PSU -8.5
Enemy Blog: Conquest Chronicles

More than anything else, the 2014 Charleston Classic has proven to be a stress test for Penn State fans. The Nittany Lions' tied their first game in dramatic fashion only to run out of gas in the second overtime against Charlotte, and Friday's miracle victory over Cornell was somehow even more frustrating. So win or lose on Sunday against an unpredictable USC, perhaps it's best for our long term health if this one is clear-cut and drama-free.

The Trojans ended up in the fifth place game after getting bushwhacked by the perpetually sneaky-good Akron Zips 66-46 in the opening round, and squeaked out a two-point victory against a winless Drexel (who could be the RPI killer we assumed Cornell would be. But that's a ways away from mattering). The win came at a significant cost, though - four-star freshman Malik Martin suffered a knee injury and will not feature against Penn State.

Scouting The Opposition

Andy Enfield's Florida Gulf Coast team captivated a nation with their play in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, which was equally exciting and effective. Enfield hasn't been able to replicate Dunk City in his first season with the wreckage Kevin O'Neill left him, but he's laying a foundation for a winner on the recruiting trail. USC inked the 19th overall 2014 recruiting class (according to 247's Composite rankings) and even without Martin they'll have some talented freshmen on the floor. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin leads the team in scoring and is an excellent distributor, assisting his teammates on 39.5% of their makes so far. His play seems to be the biggest factor in deciding games for the Trojans - in USC's two wins, McLaughlin has a 5:1 assist to turnover ratio. In their two losses, that figure plummets to 1:1.35.

McLaughlin was joined by UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt in the offseason, a 6-5 guard who was expected to lead the Trojans in scoring from the get go in 2014-15. After a couple of promising performances on his home court to open the year Reinhardt has found the going in Charleston to be a little more difficult. He's scored just 13 points in two games on 4-15 shooting in the tournament. /goes for 30 against Penn State

The elder statesman on this roster may be sophomore Nikola Jovanovic, a 6-10 center who averaged 8.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for USC's eleven-win 2013-14 squad. He's another who's had a difficult start to this campaign though, having made just 10 of his 29 shots on the season. This will be another chance for Penn State's struggling big men to assert themselves against an out-of-form frontcourt.

What To Watch For

As mentioned above, USC's offense runs through future star McLaughlin. Even still, the Trojans are turning the ball over on 23.8% of their possessions. By comparison, Penn State is coughing it up on 19.3% of their possessions. The best way for a struggling defense to recover is to keep the opponent from shooting the ball, so pressuring McLaughlin early and often should be high up on Pat Chambers' to-do list.

Also, keep an eye on Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson to see if they can stay out of foul trouble. If either one can give Penn State productive minutes for the first time in this god forsaken tournament against a depleted USC frontline they'll be well worth Vegas' (rather generous) spread of eight and a half points.

Prediction

Is there any reason to predict anything other than an exasperating experience? No, there isn't. So I won't. The Nittany Lions will play down to yet another opponent and struggle to get anything going against a middling USC defense and probably let McLaughlin have plenty freedom with the ball. But if there's one thing Penn State has shown this extended weekend, it's that they share their coach's mental fortitude. Flaming Bus protocol reigns and the Lions win this game on an absurdly dumb play, 69-68.