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January 9, 2008

USC tries to break slump vs. undefeated WSU

Arguably, this one should be easier. At least USC is at home.

Last year, the Trojans also played a 13-0 team in the third game of conference play. They won at Oregon, 84-82.

This time, the situation seems a little more desperate. After dropping both contests in Northern California during the Pac-10's opening weekend, USC (9-5, 0-2) plays host to No. 4 Washington State, Thursday at 8 p.m.

With a loss, USC would - at best - be 1-3 in conference play, heading into a Jan. 19 matchup against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

"I'm not going to be in the prognosticating business," coach Tim Floyd said, regarding the impact a victory against the Cougars could have. "We've got 16 games left to play. … We're going to have a lot of opportunities to play against (ranked) teams. It's early."

Washington State ranks first in the conference in scoring defense (49.8 points per game), opponents' field goal percentage (.369, USC is second at .380) and turnover margin (plus-3.08).

After tying a school record by winning 26 games in their first year under Tony Bennett, the Cougars returned most of a roster that thrived under the coach's deliberate offense and feisty defensive schemes. But Washington State also has not faced a ranked opponent this season, with its most-notable victories coming at Gonzaga (51-47) and at Washington (56-52), in its only Pac-10 game.

"Man, they're disciplined," sophomore guard Daniel Hackett said. "It looks like a pro team out there - a European pro team."

The Cougars topped USC twice last year in the regular season - by three points at the Galen Center and by two in double overtime at home - before falling to the Trojans, 70-61, in the conference tournament.

"I think this time a year ago, they were hopeful of winning in this league," Floyd said. "Now they're confident. There's a difference. They've done it; they've been together; and they're back."

Now USC (9-5, 0-2) is hopeful of winning in the Pac-10. The Trojans played sharp offense but poor defense in a 92-82 loss at California, followed by a stifling-defensive and anemic-offensive performance in a 52-46 loss at Stanford.

USC has allowed opponents to grab more rebounds (34.4) per game than any other team in the conference, while posting the Pac-10's worst assist-to-turnover ratio (.83).

"There's not any panic," said freshman guard O.J. Mayo, who ranks second in the Pac-10 in scoring at 20.1 points per game. "We realize that we've got to get better, and we know that. We're young and just trying to get better."

Jonathan Kay can be reach at Jon@USCFootball.com

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