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Colorado men’s basketball hopes a final push begins in rematch against USC

Colorado guard KJ Simpson (left) will be one of several Buffs players aiming to slow USC's Drew Peterson when the teams collide at the CU Events Center.  (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Colorado guard KJ Simpson (left) will be one of several Buffs players aiming to slow USC’s Drew Peterson when the teams collide at the CU Events Center. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The problems that have kept the Colorado men’s basketball team hovering around .500 for much of the season probably can’t be fully encapsulated by looking back at any one game.

Yet a review of Buffaloes’ loss at USC on Jan. 12 might come close.

Still seeking an elusive hot streak that might change the tone of the final weeks of the season, the Buffs host USC on Thursday night to start a season-closing three-game homestand. There are bigger stakes at play for the Trojans, who are attempting to cement their NCAA Tournament credentials while securing a place in the top four of the Pac-12 Conference. But the Buffs hope to begin a run that will make the final weeks more interesting as well.

“That was the epitome of empty possessions,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said of his team’s loss at USC last month. “I’ve been watching the film. I have no idea how the game was even close in L.A. USC, they’ve got a lot on the line. And for us, I think this team can get hot down the stretch and make some noise. So this game may not mean a lot in the standings from our standpoint, but it does for theirs. We’re fighting for pride and to get hot and see what can happen down the stretch.”

CU suffered a 68-61 loss at USC, and contrary to Boyle’s point, the reason the Buffs were in the game was due to defense. USC got off to a 7-for-10 start but shot just .373 (19-for-51) the rest of the way. CU also dominated the glass, posting a 44-29 rebounding advantage, but an all-too familiar script that unfolded offensively prevented the Buffs from picking up a road win.

The Buffs finished the game with what at the time was a season-high 22 turnovers, leading to a 13-point advantage for the Trojans (20-7) in points off turnovers in a contest that was decided by seven points. (CU set a new season-high in turnovers 48 hours later with 23 at UCLA). CU also suffered nine blocked shots, with four of them recorded by USC forward Joshua Morgan.

Morgan is the Pac-12 leader in blocked shots overall  (2.3 per game) and in conference games (2.1).

“We have to make it happen,” Boyle said. “Nothing is going to be given to you at this time of year. Really, at no time of the year. You’ve got to be ready to seize the opportunity when it’s there, and what’s better than three home games to finish the year? You’d better take advantage of when the schedule does favor you. Three home games, what more can you ask for?”

The Buffs still have an opportunity to play their way into a favorable first-round seeding at the Pac-12 tournament, or even an NIT berth. However, it will require the sort of consistent run that CU, despite a number of impressive early-season wins that includes toppling then-No. 11 Tennessee in Nashville, simply has been unable to attain.

CU has won more than two games in a row just once this season, putting together a five-game winning streak in December compiled mostly against mid-major foes at home. CU has won nine of its past 10 home games, but setbacks in Boulder in very winnable games against Arizona State and Washington provides skepticism that home cooking will allow the Buffs to finish strong.

“That’s something we’ve talked about — we’re capable of beating any team in our league,” CU wing Nique Clifford said. “We’ve got to go out and do it. And we haven’t proven that all year, but we know that we are capable when we are at our best, defending and rebounding at a high level. And when shots are falling, that certainly helps. But we’ve got to keep focusing on defense and rebounding.”

USC Trojans at CU Buffs men’s basketball

TIPOFF: Thursday, 7 p.m., CU Events Center.

TV/RADIO: TV — ESPN2. Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.

RECORDS: USC  19-8, 11-5 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 15-13, 7-10.

COACHES: USC — Andy Enfield, 10th season (221-134, 262-162 overall). Colorado — Tad Boyle, 13th season (269-168, 325-234 overall).

KEY PLAYERS: USC — G Boogie Ellis, 6-3, Sr., (17.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, . 382 3%); G Drew Peterson, 6-9, Sr. (14.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, .469 FG%); G Tre White, 6-7 Fr. (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg); G Kobe Johnson, 6-6, So. (8.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg). Colorado — F Tristan da Silva, 6-9, Jr. (16.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .516 FG%, .413 3%); G KJ Simpson, 6-2, So. (15.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.9 apg); F Luke O’Brien, 6-8, Jr. (5.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg); G Nique Clifford, 6-6, Jr. (6.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

NOTES: CU owned a seven-game winning streak against USC before consecutive victories by the Trojans, including a win in Boulder last year. … The Trojans didn’t play a true road game during its nonconference schedule and has gone 3-5 on the road in Pac-12 play. … USC’s Ellis is the reigning Pac-12 player of the week after going a combined 10-for-18 on 3-pointers and 15-for-15 on free throws during the Trojans’ home sweep last week of the Bay Area schools. … USC owns the top mark in Pac-12 games in overall defensive field goal percentage (.396) but ranks just 11th in defensive 3-point percentage (.364). … O’Brien has averaged 9.2 points and 7.4 rebounds over the past five games. … Buffs center Lawson Lovering enjoyed the finest game of his career last month at USC, posting career-highs of 13 points and 14 rebounds. … CU’s season-ending three-game homestand continues on Sunday against No. 4 UCLA (2 p.m., CBS).