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BYU vs. USC basketball preview: 3 keys for the HoopHall matchup

The Cougars and Trojans collide on the Staples Center floor. What 3 things should you watch for?

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at San Diego Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night’s game against the men of Troy is a big one for BYU. The Cougars need to pick up a resume win in their non-conference schedule. A “neutral” site game in the Staples Center provides a big opportunity for Dave Rose’s ball team.

USC is 7-0 and has a slew of players who can score. The Trojans feature 6 players that are averaging at least 10 points per game and are led by junior guard Elijah Stewart’s 16 points per game.

Meanwhile, BYU is facing a future without starting big man Kyle Davis, while rotation guard Elijah Bryant is also still out with injury.

What will be the important factors in this contest?

1. Pace of play

In the entirety of Dave Rose’s tenure as head basketball coach at BYU, the pre-game notes always have always indicated that on offense, Rose’s squad is going to push the ball and try to force as much transition as possible.

Can you remember a single game in the past 11 seasons where it could be suggested that maybe BYU shouldn’t try to run and gun because their opponent could out-run and out-gun the Cougars?

I can’t. But on Saturday against the USC Trojans, BYU might want to slow the tempo.

The primary reasons why BYU hasn’t really wanted to be the slower pace of play team in all of their games: Under Rose, BYU has consistently been much more effective at scoring in transition. Or inversely, BYU’s half-court offense has tended to be a worse option than playing on the break.

However, through the first 9 games of the 2016-17 hoops season, BYU has been a better half-court offense than a transition offense.

In fact, thus far BYU is a below-average team on the fast break. The Cougars are shooting 43.7% in transition. That’s 304th (of 351 D1 teams) nationally. That’s not great. Especially when, theoretically, a transition look is meant to be a better, less-defended shot.

Beyond that, BYU is the 3rd-fastest pace of play team in the country. So in a way, the Cougars are playing away from their strength: half-court offense.

BYU’s half-court O is currently outshooting their transition with a 45% field goal percentage. They are ranked 69th nationally in half-court offense. They have been very good.

So while a Dave Rose offense is never truly going to stop running, if they aren’t able to find a quick shot, that’s okay! Especially against USC.

The Trojans aren’t really a team the Cougars want to get into a track meet with as Andy Enfield’s undefeated squad is lethal in transition. Southern California is shooting 59.8% in transition and an excellent 1.2 points per transition possession.

When USC is forced to play through their half court, it is far more attractive than a transition look. The Trojans shoot 41.3% in half court and average 0.9 points per half court possession. Still a challenge for the Cougars defense, but far preferable to transition.

So, as weird as this may feel to BYU fans and to the Cougars themselves, every advantage based on the data through the first 7 games this season suggests the Cougars would be wise to slow it down against USC — even just the tiniest bit.

USC also draws a ton of fouls when they attack in transition and foul trouble has hindered BYU.

It would be shocking if Dave Rose’s team opts to walk the ball up instead of run the floor. It just isn’t in his DNA. But, slowing it down here and there may be worth considering.

2. Offensive rebounds

The place BYU has really helped themselves this season is on the glass — and in particular, on the offensive glass.

When Yoeli Childs, Eric Mika and the rest of the Cougar bigs have fired up a put back it has been an outstanding source of points for the Y. BYU is averaging 6.8 points per game on put back attempts — one of the top marks in the country.

Look for the offensive glass to be key against the Trojans as USC has surrendered an average of 11.1 offense boards per contest.

3. Turnovers

As simple as it seems, empty possessions due to turnovers can kill a team. Especially when they lead to easy layups at the other end of the floor.

This is a place where USC has been better this season.

BYU averages 14.4 turnovers per game. USC averages 11.4 turnovers.

Defensively, BYU forces 12.9 turnovers per game. USC forces 13.1 turnovers per game.

Think about it this way: BYU has a -1.5 turnover margin. USC has a +1.7 turnover margin.

Should those numbers hold up, BYU will give USC 2 extra possessions with the basketball.

In what looks to be a close and competitive contest — Ken Pomeroy has USC by 4 at 65% probability — that may be enough to make the difference in the game. As always, ball security will be paramount.

Which guards dictate the pace of play? Will BYU own the offensive glass? Can BYU improve their ball security? The answers to these questions will be absolutely crucial in deciding Saturday night’s winner. It should be a great watch.