USC and Providence face off in Dayton for a spot in the first round against SMU on Friday
Much like a superhero movie franchise, March Madness is producing a sequel to one of the better NCAA Tournament games from last season. When Providence and USC met in the Round of 64 a year ago, it came down to the final possession. The Friars edged the Trojans 70-69 on Rodney Bullock's backdoor layup off an inbounds pass with 1.5 seconds remaining.
Can the encore deliver an equally dramatic finish in 2017? A dramatic finish may not be in the script this time around.
Providence and USC enter the First Four traveling in different directions. The Friars overcame a ragged 4-8 start in Big East play and ripped off six wins over their final seven games to lock down an at-large bid. The Trojans backed into the field. USC opened the season with 14 straight wins, but haven't beaten a team with a winning record since January.
First Four: No. 11 USC Trojans (24-9) vs. No. 11 Providence Friars (20-12)
When: 9:10 p.m. ET (Wednesday, approximate tip time)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Line: USC -2.5
Keys for Providence
Rodney Bullock came up with a big performance when Providence and USC met a year ago. Including his game-winning layup, Bullock totaled 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Friars will need more of the same from the junior forward to make it out of Dayton.
Bullock can deliver. He is the team leader in both scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg). The junior forward posted three consecutive double-doubles against Xavier, Creighton and Marquette during Providence's six game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Keeping USC's offense in check also is critical for the Friars. Providence has won just twice when teams have scored 70 or more points this season.
Keys for USC
Turning the game into a track meet may be the best course of action for the Trojans. USC functions best when its offense can run and gun. The Trojans score 78.7 points per game, ranking fourth among Pac-12 teams. Four players average double figures in scoring, led by Bennie Boatwright (14.6 ppg). Chimezie Metu also is a force in scoring (14.5 ppg) and on the boards (7.8 rpg).
The most effective way for USC to get things free flowing is to force Providence into playing sloppy. The Trojans average a Pac-12-best 7.2 steals per game, so pressuring the Friars is well within their capabilities. If USC can get its transition offense going early off turnovers, keeping pace will be tough for Providence.
USC struggled to beat any team outside of the Pac-12 cellar as the season wore down. Providence, on the other hand, rediscovered its winning ways in a deep and rugged Big East down the stretch. The Friars are capable of holding their own on offense and are a much better team defensively than the Trojans. It likely won't come down to a last-second layup this time for Providence, but the Friars won't need one against a USC team staggering to the finish line.
Prediction: Providence 74, USC 68
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.