November 14, 2015 by Max Meyer
By Max Meyer
What a different a year makes. In last season’s opener, USC fell to Portland State at Galen Center. This time around, the team looked more talented and confident, blowing out San Diego 83-45.
“Last year we were young and inexperienced,” Jordan McLaughlin said. “That helped us a lot this year. We wanted to start undefeated, not defeated.”
USC’s young guns were raved about all offseason, and they came to play tonight. The Trojans’ freshmen and sophomores scored 57 of the 83 points, or 69.7 percent.
McLaughlin, a sophomore, was tonight’s leading scorer with 20 points. Another sophomore guard, Elijah Stewart, looked much improved from last season. Freshman forward Chimezie Metu was excellent at protecting the rim.
USC has a lot more intriguing pieces to work with than in Andy Enfield’s first two seasons. And I think it’ll show in its record.
“It felt differently because we’re a better basketball team. We’ve got more talent and we’re playing better as a team. It is just one game, but I’m very proud of that one game.”
One Thing I Liked: Elijah Stewart
Stewart really came onto the scene late last season, scoring at least 12 points in USC’s last four games. He led the team with 27 points in the upset win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament. He picked up where he left off on Friday night, and then some.
Stewart had his first career double-double, picking up 14 points and 10 rebounds. He looked more confident with his jump shot. He had one of his signature blocks, swatting away a San Diego player’s three-point attempt.
He simply looked like a dominant two-way player for USC.
The 10 rebounds were a career-high for him, and it wasn’t a coincidence it happened in the first game of his sophomore year.
“In practice, [the coaches] have been getting on me about rebounding,” Stewart said. “Tonight, I just wanted to crash the boards and get as many as I could.”
“We’ve been trying to get him to rebound,” Enfield said. “He’s a big time athlete running and jumping. We need that on a consistent basis. A lot of our bigs are boxing out, and we need our guards to be great rebounders this year. We made that a goal for Elijah to improve in that area, and hopefully that will continue.”
While the rebounding was one clear improvement, it just seemed that Stewart really put in the effort this past offseason to become a better player. His coach believes he improved across the board.
“He’s a better ball handler, he’s much stronger physically, he’s a better defender and he’s more confident.”
If Stewart plays like this throughout the season, not only will he be USC’s MVP, he’ll likely make an all-Pac team.
Another Thing I Liked: The Defense
USC’s defense has been a consistent struggle under Enfield, but tonight it was dominant. There was one stretch in the game where the Trojans only allowed San Diego to make only four of 30 shots.
While a few of the players said that the shot clock being reduced from 35 to 30 seconds didn’t make an impact on offense, it looked like it did on the other side of the ball. Enfield agreed.
“Defensively, we tried to press a little bit, and try to wear some time off the defensive end,” the USC coach said. “I thought tonight our defense was excellent. We held them to 25 percent shooting, which is the best since we’ve been here. Whether it’s man or trapping press or zone press, the shot clock will come into effect at times.”
Metu, a true freshman, looked raw on offense. But on the other end, he looked like a defensive anchor, something USC lacked last season. He blocked shots, and helped the guards by not forcing them into foul trouble if a defender blew by them.
“[Metu’s] an elite athlete,” Enfield said. “He’s got great timing on his rim protection. I’m very proud of him, because he’s doing what he’s supposed to do and he really played well.”
With the other true freshman, Bennie Boatwright, in foul trouble for most of the game, it allowed Metu to play more. After Boatwright picked up an early second foul in the first half, Metu was USC’s first substitution of the game. While their games are quite different, both can impact the game in numerous ways. They are simply two more pieces to a fascinating USC basketball puzzle.