January 12, 2016 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
What a season it has been so far for the USC Trojans Men’s Basketball team. Coming off their biggest win of the Andy Enfield era over Arizona, people are starting to take notice of this young and exciting squad. In the latest AP Poll, the 14-3 Trojans are ranked 26th. Another test looms tomorrow night when they travel across town to face the rival UCLA Bruins. At this point, USC is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. How far they can go remains to be seen. Here are my 10 quick takes on the season so far:
- USC is a legitimate Pac-12 title contender. Some may say this is a bit far-fetched, but USC is as athletic and talented as any team in the conference. Even though it took four overtimes to knock off #7 Arizona, the Trojans were in control for the majority of the game before squandering a double digit lead down the stretch. More on that later. However, it’s not solely the performance against the Wildcats that has made me believe this squad is for real. Their guard play is elite, they shoot three-pointers better than any team in the conference (40.9 percent), they lead the nation in blocked shots, and their scoring margin is the second best in the league (12.4). Outside of the two freshmen (Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu), this is a team that has played together for two consecutive years and it shows. They share the ball and have outstanding chemistry. I’m not saying they will win the conference title, but they are definitely in the conversation.
- Andy Enfield’s patience is paying off. With the exception of Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, Andy Enfield had to build this program virtually from scratch after taking over for Kevin O’Neill. He certainly took some heat after going 23-41 (5-31 in the Pac-12) in his first two seasons. Many started to doubt whether or not his magical run at Florida Gulf Coast that got him the USC job was a fluke. This season, Enfield and his staff are proving all of those doubters wrong. He did not go for the “quick fix” and bring in lots of transfers right away in order to compete. He knew his team would take its lumps initially, but he had faith that by allowing a young squad to grow together, they would be better in the long run. Enfield prides himself on player development. He has surrounded himself with terrific recruiters in assistant coaches Tony Bland, Jason Hart, and Kevin Norris. Last year, USC struggled as one of the youngest teams in the nation. While they are still young, the improvement and chemistry are evident.
- The combo of Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs makes USC dangerous in March. You hear it all the time: Elite guard play is necessary to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. USC certainly has that. From his freshman to his junior season, Julian Jacobs has improved about as much as anyone can. He knows when to attack, gets his teammates involved, and is one of the more explosive guards in the country. McLaughlin has dramatically improved his shooting, especially from three-point range (44.6 percent this year compared to 27.2 percent last season). He has already made one more three this season (29) than he made all of last year. Together, Jacobs and McLaughlin are lethal. They can each handle the ball, attack, and distribute. They are #1 and #3 in the Pac-12 in assists. Lately, Andy Enfield has switched them out in the middle of games to make sure they are both rested down the stretch. The versatility of the pair makes USC very difficult to defend.
- While Julian Jacobs is the spark plug, Bennie Boatwright is USC’s best player. When Jacobs went down with an ankle injury in the second half against Washington, it was clear how much USC missed him. The Trojans blew a 22-point lead in about 12 minutes en route to their one and only conference loss so far. Jacobs gives USC tremendous energy and is their floor general in clutch moments. Boatwright, however, is the biggest matchup problem for opposing defenses. In the win over Arizona, Coach Enfield consistently isolated Boatwright on the left box and allowed him to create for himself. That’s something you see more in the NBA than in college basketball. More importantly, his ability at 6-10 to step out and hit threes (39.5 percent) frees up lanes for guys like Jacobs, McLaughlin, and Elijah Stewart to penetrate. Whenever his defender leaves him in pick-and-roll situations, Boatwright makes that man pay by hitting a three. His basketball IQ for a freshman is off the charts and he has picked up his defense and rebounding as of late. Right now, the Trojans have six players who average double digit points per game, ranging from 12.9 to 10.8. If one emerges as the go-to guy and big shot maker down the stretch, it will be Boatwright.
- When Elijah Stewart is on his game, he takes USC to a different level. The sophomore matched his season-high with 27 points in the win over Arizona (9-13 FG, 5-8 3PT FG). He had a tremendous start to the season, averaging 16.7 points per game over the first three contests. Then, he went into a rut, only reaching double digits just once in USC’s next nine games. Since then, he has bounced back to average exactly 16 points per game over the last five. To his credit, Stewart’s effort at the defensive end has remained consistent throughout his ups and downs offensively. He is probably USC’s best perimeter and overall defender. Stewart is known for his three-point shooting (43.8 percent on the season compared to 34.6 percent last year), but also showed the ability to drive to the basket and convert against Arizona. As with most three-point shooters, confidence is everything for Stewart. He seems to have it going right now, and when he does, he gives USC yet another lethal threat from the perimeter.
- Katin Reinhardt does not make USC better. While Reinhardt has certainly improved and bought into Andy Enfield’s system more this season, he still hasn’t seemed to mesh with this USC team. His three-point shooting is very good (40.3 percent) and if he stuck to that, I think he could be an asset. However, he still tries to do too much off the dribble and has trouble finishing at the rim. It seems like whenever he comes into the game, he feels the need to “get his.” When he penetrates to dish and shoots threes, Reinhardt is solid. He tries to make the spectacular play too much, however, and it throws off the flow of the USC offense. Last year, he actually shot a worse percentage on two-point field goals than he did on threes. That has improved this season, but Reinhardt is too talented to make some of the mistakes that he does. In the Arizona game, he committed a bad turnover early in the first overtime and did not play for the rest of the game, finishing with just two points. In Pac-12 play, he his shooting just 31.6 percent (12-38) and is 1-10 from downtown.
- The trimmed down rotation against Arizona could be a preview. Andy Enfield used just eight players in the 4OT victory over Arizona, with five of them playing 41 minutes or more. Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin led the way with 53 and 50 minutes respectively. Usual role players Malik Marquetti and Malik Martin did not see the floor. Is this a sign of things to come, especially against some of the better teams in the conference? That remains to be seen.
- Nikola Jovanovic is steadily improving. While the big man’s improvement may look like baby steps compared to McLaughlin, Stewart, and Jacobs, Jovanovic has turned into a reliable post presence for USC. He has six double-doubles and has reached double figures in scoring in all but five contests this season. His field goal percentage has slightly improved (54.8 percent from 51.5), he’s averaging about a rebound per game more than last season, and he’s turning the ball over less. He still has to finish better around the rim, but his toughness and interior defense inside have also improved. Against Arizona, he had one of his better games this season with 17 points, six rebounds, and four blocks, making life tough on Arizona star big man Kaleb Tarczewski all night.
- USC needs to close games better. This point is obvious to anyone who has watched the first four conference games. In each one, the Trojans have allowed double digit leads in the second half to get away. Washington State never really made the Trojans sweat, but Washington came all the way back to win, ASU had a three-point attempt for the lead with a minute to go, and Arizona forced overtime with a furious rally in the final few minutes. If USC hopes to win a conference title and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, the Trojans must find a way to put teams away. Three areas, in particular, have to improve: Slowing down the tempo of the game and trying to burn clock too early, turnovers, and free throw shooting.
- The Pac-12 champion this season could have 13 or 14 wins. Usually, the conference champion is around 16-2 or 15-3. Due to the parity in the league this season, that number should dip. There is no dominant team and no terrible team. USC just beat conference favorite Arizona, who now already has two losses in their first three games. The parity is why defeats such as the one at Washington for USC could prove costly down the road. Speaking of the road, sweeps away from home this season will be very tough for anyone to pick up. As Arizona found out after losing to both UCLA and USC, every game on the road this season will be tough in the Pac-12. The eventual champion is anyone’s guess at this point, but USC should certainly be in the mix.