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Game of the Day: USC tries to keep dwindling 2014 NCAA Tournament hopes alive with a win against Cal

With a win at USC today and a loss by Washington, Cal can secure a first round bye in the 2014 Pac-12 Tournament. While California Golden Blogs will elaborate on what's at stake from a Cal perspective, we'll look at what's at stake for USC.

Senior Cassie Harberts could play a big role for USC in a big game today against Cal.
Senior Cassie Harberts could play a big role for USC in a big game today against Cal.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USC Women of Troy vs. California Golden Bears

12 p.m. PST

L.A. Sports Arena - Los Angeles, CA

TV: Pac-12 Networks

WBB State preview statistics

SB Nation blog: California Golden Blogs

There are a number of games worth watching today with top-ranked teams led by top players going head-to-head for yet another busy Sunday women's basketball schedule on ESPN.

But rather than resist my west coast bias, I'm going to embrace it today: with USC sitting on the 2014 NCAA Tournament bubble, their game against Cal today is about as interesting as anything else on television today.

After Friday night's (expected) loss to Stanford, any hope that USC had of leap-frogging Cal and finishing second after today's game is pretty much gone: the Golden Bears are now two full games ahead of the Women of Troy - with Arizona State and Oregon State sandwiched in between - and it would take an epic collapse from three teams for any of the teams with six losses to make a move at this point.

But just as they were during much of Michael Cooper's tenure with the program, USC is still very much in the mix for an at-large tournament bid in Naismith Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke's first year coaching her alma mater.

However, Charlie Creme and Steven Bell of the S-Factor project their fate very differently: Creme didn't even have USC within the first eight teams left out of his latest bracketology while Bell had USC moving into the field as of Friday after yo-yoing in and out over the last few weeks. Today's game gives them one last chance to pick up a quality win in conference play before the conference tournament. And it might be the last chance for them to make a case for an at-large bid.

USC does have a solid strength of schedule (ranked 39th) and has already picked up wins against a pair of tournament-bound teams in Cal (in Berkeley) and Oregon State. A win today against Cal would give them a sweep of a nationally ranked team, which would certainly help them with the selection committee.

Their first meeting with Cal was in fact a battle for second place as USC left Berkeley in sole possession of second place at 7-1 with a 77-70 win (boxscore). Junior guard Ariya Crook led the way for the Women of Troy with a career-high 34 which included a season-high five threes out of 10 attempts. Nick Kranz of SB Nation's California Golden Blogs described a performance that has become all-too-familiar for Cal fans.

If there's any team in the conference that understands what Ariya Crook can do, it's Cal. The Bears still couldn't stop her. Even when Cassie Harberts wasn't on the floor, when Crook was the only viable scoring threat on the floor, even then she got good looks off. Cal's inability to stop Crook cost them the game, 2nd place in the conference, and any realistic chance at the conference crown. Ariya Crook is a good player. Cal, somehow, turns her into a dominant player.

Certainly USC will look toward Crook to provide more heroics tonight, but the x-factor in today's game might be 6-foot-2 senior forward Cassie Harberts who hasn't been too shabby against Cal during her career either.

As Kranz noted later in his analysis, Cal did a good job of denying Harberts the ball and holding her to just 4-for-11 shooting overall in keeping with their surprising defensive improvement overall this season. But Harberts managed to finish with 15 points in Berkeley on the strength of 7-for-10 free throw shooting, which reflects a strength of hers against Cal throughout her career: she averages 9.5 free throws attempts against Cal, which nicely complements Crook's ability to get to the free throw line from the perimeter. Even if Harberts shoots poorly from the field again, Cal will need to find a way to avoid fouling and allowing her to get points from the free throw line in addition to getting out to contest her when she steps out to shoot her patented step back jumper.

That skill she shows as a post player is what has her on WNBA scouts' radars: it's difficult to ignore the combination of size and skill that she has displayed from the moment she put on a USC uniform. Yet she will probably find herself on a personal bubble with regard to the 2014 WNBA Draft after USC resolves their tournament bubble.

As someone who takes a lot of jumpers, it's no surprise that she's not the most efficient post prospect. The problem is that her true shooting percentage as a senior (50.4%) isn't a whole lot better than what it was in her freshman year (49%). That inefficient scoring for an interior player couple with a rebounding rate that puts her just outside of the top-25 in the Pac-12 reflects her struggle to become a consistently dominant post player in the Pac-12 despite easily being among the most skilled.

Those numbers can be easily explained away by how her role on the team has shifted from playing with a trio of talented role players under Cooper in her first year to adjusting to an entirely new system as a focal point in Cooper-Dyke's first season. Nevertheless, they're significantly below the rate what we might expect to see from a successful WNBA prospect.

A dominant performance against Harberts today would go a long way to helping both she and USC get off their respective bubbles - it's a very winnable game that could pay huge dividends. But Cal has plenty to play for in their own right: a win would keep them in second place after Friday's win at UCLA and move them within a game of securing one of those coveted byes in the Pac-12 tournament bracket if they can win their next game. And there's little question that Cal will come in hungry after dropping a disappointing game in Berkeley earlier this season that has catalyzed improved play since.

For more on today's game, be sure to check out SB Nation's California Golden Blogs. For more on the draft, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream.