February 23, 2016 by Marshall Kelner
After a terrific start to the conference season, USC has hit a bit of a wall as of late, losing three of its past four games. Without an incredible second half comeback at home against Colorado, it would be four L’s in a row for the Trojans. What do they have to do in order to turn things around headed into the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments? I have some ideas:
–START FASTER. This is, of course, much easier said than done. However, the Trojans have proven they can come out of the gates quickly. Their problem earlier in the season was blowing big, early leads. Lately, it’s been the opposite. The past three games, USC has faced halftime deficits of 16, 8, and 10 points against Arizona on the road, and Colorado and Utah at home. Those are three solid teams, but you can’t keep falling behind big and expect to overcome it. Not in this conference and not in the NCAA Tournament.
–DEFEND BETTER. Again, easier said than done, but here’s the bottom line. The past three games, USC has allowed its opponents to shoot…get ready…an even 50 percent!!! That is inexcusable. The more alarming fact is that it’s not like teams are raining down threes. In that span, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah shot 37.5 percent from long range. Not bad, but not anything to write home about. That means those same teams have shot 56.6 percent on two-point field goals. Everything is right at the rim right now. Can’t happen.
–PRESS MORE. This is directly related to the above point. USC is an extremely athletic team, yet Coach Enfield does not press that much. When he does, it’s very passive and seems like simply a ploy to force teams to use some shot clock breaking it. I want to see more aggressive pressing from the Trojans. Not the entire game, but in key spots. The counter to that is that they aren’t too deep, which is fair. However, pressing fits the personality of this team, would cut down on the half-court defense they have to play, and enable them to get steals, run, and convert easy baskets in transition.
–GET ELIJAH STEWART GOING. The sophomore is one of six Trojans to average double figures in scoring this season, but he is without question the X-factor. He and Katin Reinhardt are also the most inconsistent of the six scorers. Stewart has the ability to go off for 25 on any given night. He’s become a much better shooter and driver this season. In conference play, he is shooting over 50 percent from three-point range. Yet, in 57 minutes against Colorado and Utah last week, Stewart took a total of three shots from distance and attempted nine field goals overall. Someone please explain that one to me. It’s not like he’s passing up shots. The guy loves to pull the trigger. Get him the ball.
–KEEP BENNIE OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE. If Elijah Stewart is the top X-factor, the freshman Bennie Boatwright is not far behind. He has had a troubling pattern, however, of picking up two quick fouls in the first half and having to ride the bench for long stretches as a result. He is the biggest matchup problem for the opposition. A good athlete at 6-10, who can shoot or create off the bounce. He forces bigger defenders out onto the perimeter, clearing up driving lanes for USC’s explosive guards. Speaking of explosive, when he gets into a shooting rhythm, it is a thing of beauty. He can carry the USC offense when he’s on. In five of USC’s last seven games, he has played 26 minutes or less. By now you know the reason.
–PUT JORDAN MCLAUGHLIN ON THE BALL MORE. I’m fine with Julian Jacobs handling the ball, but I would like to see more of an even distribution with Jordan McLaughlin. In the comeback against Colorado, the key offensively was letting McLaughlin lead the show and make plays with the ball in his hands. He was able to get to the free throw line (7-of-9) and scored a season-high 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting. He also made the key three to put USC ahead for good. You don’t want to take Jacobs off the ball entirely, though, because Jordan moves well without it and is shooting over 44 percent from three-point range to lead USC. I just think a more even distribution would be more effective and dynamic. It would also take some pressure off Jacobs, who had seven turnovers at ASU and four more at home against Colorado.
–LIMIT KATIN REINHARDT’S MINUTES. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. Katin Reinhardt does not make this team better when he is on the floor. He is an extremely streaky offensive player, takes poor shots, is slow on defensive rotations, and doesn’t consistently play with high energy. He put up a grand total of six points against Colorado and Utah last week on 2-of-12 shooting and 1-of-7 from three-point range. In conference play, Reinhardt is shooting 38.3 percent overall (49-of-128) and 29 percent from three-point range (18-of-62). At least he gets to the line, right? Wrong. He has shot a total of 15 free throws in 14 Pac-12 contests. He has made 14 of them. In fairness, Reinhardt has talent and could be a spark plug from long range for USC. I would re-insert Elijah Stewart back into the starting lineup and bring Katin off the bench to be a spot up shooter. He was better in that role early in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
And there you have it! I don’t want anyone to get the misconception that I’m not happy with the season USC has had to this point. Andy Enfield and his staff have done an exceptional job and already exceeded most people’s expectations. This team is capable of making a deep run in March, though. Yes, they have deficiencies, as all teams do, but their strengths certainly outweigh their weaknesses. The Trojans have four more crucial regular season games to get their swagger back. Ultimately, that is more important than a bye in the first round of the conference tournament or a high seed in the big dance. Let’s hope it happens.